GM Global Product Maven Maximum Bob Lutz claims that satisfying new U.S. federal fuel economy regulations will cost the consumer an additional $6k per car, on average. That seems a bit of a strange statement, as there are already plenty of cars capable of besting the freshly-minted mandate. From Japan to Jerusalem, from Mumbai to Milan, the world is filled, and filling, with suitably fuel efficient passenger cars. The real question is whether or not America is ready– make that “willing”– to buy the same sort of frugal machines that the rest of the world has been driving for years. Take the Fiat Grande Punto. Please.
Despite the word “Grande,” the Punto is 158 inches long– a little longer than the ten foot pole with which most American Camry drivers wouldn’t touch an Italian car. Thanks to oversized details like swept back headlights and chunky door handles, the Punto doesn’t look especially small. The gorgeous front end evokes the, gulp, Maserati Coupe GT. The sides are sporty without the usual cheese wedge demeanor. The back end is wonderfully chunky and perfectly tidy.
In short, literally, after the MINI Cooper, the Punto is proof positive that manufacturers needn’t beat small, inexpensive cars with the fugly stick (I’m almost looking at you, Toyota Yaris).
The Grande Punto’s interior is its weakest link: a totally unremarkable design with materials appropriate for an American car that cost about $13k. Mercifully, Fiat has blessed the car's rock hard plastics with a pleasant matte finish. And the panels line-up with such precision you’d think the Italians drafted in some anal-retentive Swiss or Germans workers to screw the Punto’s interior together. (It’s the robots, stupid.) While bland, the cabin creates the impression that the Punto is well-assembled– a notion that no Italian car should be without.
Despite the Punto’s largely urban remit, the seats are built for the long haul. And you can forget the Italian astronaut driving position (if you like); the helmsman’s throne has manual adjustments out the wazoo. Space is also well managed; there’s plenty of room in the back for two adults or three Gumbys. Drop the second row, and the hatchback accommodates all your Euro-commodities.
The driving experience reveals the Fiat Grande Punto as a mini (no caps) masterpiece. We begin with the fizzy, crackling engine. Don’t let its 77 horsepower output fool you. Scientists from the Research Institute of Research have released a study that proves it is impossible to drive the Grande Punto without a shit-eating grin. Wind it all the way up, dump the clutch, wind it up again, and continue. For an engine with about half the displacement of a pair of galoshes, it sounds magnificent. Two valves per cylinder? Who gives a damn when it sounds like you’ve got a micro Ferrari.
The optional Duodrive semi-automatic transmission is like the one bar in Times Square that’s worth visiting. It’s a computer controlled five-speed manual transmission (like the high-performance transmissions in Maseratis, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis) with a clutch under the hood. Leave it in pure automatic mode and the computer will do everything for you. Or drive it in sequential mode and you may as well be driving a stick– without the clutch pedal.
The upshot to this system: it’s absolutely the closest any automatic transmission can come to feeling like you’re driving a manual. Gear changes are nearly instant. Volkswagen’s DSG is faster and smoother, but the Fiat feels every bit like the real deal. You’ll roll backwards on hills, neutral has a real use, and you can even feel light vibrations when accelerating from a standstill. The average American would no doubt bitch about an automatic with feedback, but Europeans have different tastes.
Again, the Fiat Grande Punto was designed for European cities. To wit: its over-light electronic speed sensitive steering. At velocities below 30mph, it’s like a videogame– which makes the Punto a breeze to drive around the average continental avenue’s absurd 135 degree turns. When you get up to speed, the steering tightens-up to give sporting drivers some of the weight they need for speed.
Understandably enough, the Punto’s suspension is more about comfort than sport. That’s what higher performance Puntos are for (with a whopping 100 horsepower). For a city car, the base model absorbs the abuses of urban roads extremely well– while preserving the fun factor. Cars with tiny powder keg engines beg to be flogged; the Punto’s suspension places the “S” over the “M.” There’s some body roll through the corners, but it’s less dramatic than you’ll find in a regular Civic or Mazda3.
The Fiat Grande Punto is a small, easy to maneuver car with a hoot of an engine, a ripping good transmission, great handling, an outrageous price and fantastic fuel economy. It's just not for Americans. So, uh, what is?