The Fiat Punto is due for retirement in about 18 months. Before it bows out, Fiat's spruced it up with its second facelift, giving it the slightly taut and startled look of a fading Hollywood star.
While revised bumpers, updated trim and a bright new paint palette won't transform the creaky Punto's appeal, a spanking new engine might. Fiat has slipped its perky little TwinAir petrol engine under the bonnet, offering the seductive combination of 85bhp and 98g/km of CO2. By dipping below 100g/km, the TwinAir gains a free tax disc and qualifies for exemption from the London Congestion Charge. It's the biggest non-hybrid petrol car to pull off this trick.
With a starting price of £12,100 (plus dealers keen to do a deal) this Punto could be something of a bargain. So we donned shades to shield eyes from its Chernobyl green paintwork and took it for a spin.
The Punto is a familiar shape, having prowled our streets in roughly its present form since 2005. Originally called Grande Punto when it arrived, Fiat changed its name to Punto Evo and gave it a 2009 facelift meant to evoke the Fiat 500. Now it has reverted to the Punto name and has been carefully resculpted to look much the same as it did to begin with.
Inside, Fiat claims new fabrics and improved plastics. They really can't have been very good before as they are still no tactile delight today. It's not completely without merit, though. The car was elegantly designed in the first place -- credited to DeLorean DMC-12 stylist Giorgetto Giugiaro no less -- and the interior is still roomy for this class of car.
The bright 'unplugged green' metallic paint is an option available only with the TwinAir model, which also comes with gloss black mirrors, darkened headlamp surrounds, bespoke 15-inch alloys, and the option of a shiny black roof.
Spend an extra £600 on your Punto TwinAir if practicality matters to you, as that will bring a pair of rear doors. Without them, access to the rear bench is a pain. The three-door's front seats do tilt and slide aside, but they yield a gap about the size of a foil-wrapped triangle of cheese.
At the rear the hatch now pops ajar with a touch of the central Fiat badge. Hauling the back open reveals an adequate 275-litre boot. A spare wheel is optional, and you can choose either a full size rim or skinny space-saver, depending on how much luggage space you're willing to sacrifice.
We found it easy to get comfortable up front, and also found lots of useful places to stow our clutter.
Performance & handling
Fiat's 875cc TwinAir engine is a remarkable piece of machinery and it dominates the experience of driving the car. Most noticeably, it's very loud. The noise doesn't actually emerge from the engine bay up front, but from the back end. Fiat has fitted an unusually raspy exhaust, producing the odd impression that the TwinAir might be rear-engined.
The sound isn't unpleasant, at least to begin with, but we imagine it might grate over a long journey.
With just a pair of cylinders thrumming away, the engine note can be deceptive to drivers weaned on four-pots. For the first five minutes of our test we kept bouncing off the rev limiter, misjudging the appropriate point to change up a gear. Fiat has included a prominent shift indicator that lights up orange in the middle of the instrument panel, attempting to guide drivers towards greater fuel economy, but it's no more intelligent than most of its ilk (it can't predict when changing gear might be a bad idea due to road conditions just ahead).
Given the racket from the little 85bhp turbocharged engine, and its decent 145Nm of torque from 2,000rpm, it's surprising the Punto TwinAir takes 12.7 seconds to reach 62mph. The throaty exhaust tricks you into feeling you must be getting places more swiftly.
It will understeer doggedly when pressed but can be fun to throw through a few curves if you're in the mood. However the suspension wallows over poor surfaces and the body sways in response to camber changes. If you're prone to motion sickness, best take the bus rather than accept a lift in the back of a Punto.
Economy & environment
The TwinAir turns in remarkable scores under the combined cycle test, yielding 98g/km of CO2 plus 67.3mpg. In our tests we flung the car about with abandon and still recorded better than 40mpg, so reasonable economy is there for the taking if you're willing to drive more gently. An “Eco” button on the dashboard will help, trimming peak torque by a quarter to eke out better mpg. The engine is also equipped with automatic stop and start to avoid wasting fuel at a standstill.
Obeying the nagging shift indicator should help as well, but we doubt the car's economy will hit the high 60s unless driven by a skilled hypermiler.
For outright economy, Fiat's excellent new MultiJet diesel engine is possibly a better bet, delivering 85bhp and beyond 50mpg in the Punto even when driven enthusiastically. It's a lot quieter too, but it is more costly – starting at £13,400 in entry-level trim.
Equipment & value
TwinAir isn't simply an engine for the Punto, it's also a trim level, sitting between the more basic Pop and Easy editions below, the plusher Lounge version above, and also distinct from the sporty GBT specification.
As standard TwinAir includes 15-inch alloys, rear privacy glass, manual air conditioning and remote central locking.
An optional Brio upgrade pack costs £1,035 and adds leather to the wheel and gearknob, cruise control, electronic climate control, rear parking sensors, and the Blue&Me technology system. The latter brings a USB socket and aux-in jack to the centre console, as well as Bluetooth synching for phones and media players. Drivers can also upload driving statistics to a USB stick for analysis by Fiat's Eco:Drive website, which will offer tips on more economical driving.
All told, the Punto TwinAir is attractively priced for what's on offer, particularly when ranked against other sub-100g/km superminis of a similar size, which will tend to be diesel powered. The VW Polo BlueMotion, for example, starts at £15,210 -- about 25 percent more than the TwinAir, before you start haggling. And even the keenly priced Chevrolet Aveo EcoDiesel costs about £100 more than the TwinAir five-door.
The Punto is now a relatively old design, last crash tested by Euro NCAP in 2005. At the time it gained an excellent five-star result, although it might not fare so well under today's tougher test regime.
As standard, the Punto TwinAir comes with driver, passenger and window airbags, plus another for the driver's knees. Front side airbags are a £150 optional extra. ABS is standard but ESP costs £300 more, an increasingly unusual omission.
The Punto TwinAir may not be youthful but it does still have some appeal, most notably by virtue of its competitive price for such a low-CO2 car. Until the end of September 2012 that price will be all the more appealing, with Fiat offering an introductory £1,000 discount off the list price, plus the Brio pack upgrade thrown in.
While the car as a whole is no longer state of the art, its engine definitely is. Whether you gel with the TwinAir will come down to your taste in exhaust notes as much as tailpipe emissions. If you like it raucous and rorty, the TwinAir may be just the car for you. If not, you might be better off shopping for a diesel such as the similarly priced but more efficient Chevy Aveo.
Model tested: Fiat Punto TwinAir
Engine: 875cc two-cylinder turbo petrol
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 12.7 seconds
Top speed: 107mph
Price: £12,100 (3dr) £12,700 (5dr)