2008 Fiat Grande Punto Review

Justin Berkowitz
by Justin Berkowitz

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?

Justin Berkowitz
Justin Berkowitz

Immensely bored law student. I've also got 3 dogs.

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  • SAAB95JD SAAB95JD on Jan 26, 2008

    The Grande Punto and the Opel Corsa are actually the same platform, correct?

  • Anonymous Anonymous on Dec 08, 2008

    [...] earlier this year at the Web site The Truth about Cars, Justin Berkowitz noted that G.M.’s vice chairman of Global Product Development, Bob Lutz, [...]

  • Dave M. IMO this was the last of the solidly built MBs. Yes, they had the environmentally friendly disintegrating wiring harness, but besides that the mechanicals are pretty solid. I just bought my "forever" car (last new daily driver that'll ease me into retirement), but a 2015-16 E Class sedan is on my bucket list for future purchase. Beautiful design....
  • Rochester After years of self-driving being in the news, I still don't understand the psychology behind it. Not only don't I want this, but I find the idea absurd.
  • Douglas This timeframe of Mercedes has the self-disintegrating engine wiring harness. Not just the W124, but all of them from the early 90's. Only way to properly fix it is to replace it, which I understand to be difficult to find a new one/do it/pay for. Maybe others have actual experience with doing so and can give better hope. On top of that, it's a NH car with "a little bit of rust", which means to about anyone else in the USA it is probably the rustiest W124 they have ever seen. This is probably a $3000 car on a good day.
  • Formula m How many Hyundai and Kia’s do not have the original engine block it left the factory with 10yrs prior?
  • 1995 SC I will say that year 29 has been a little spendy on my car (Motor Mounts, Injectors and a Supercharger Service since it had to come off for the injectors, ABS Pump and the tool to cycle the valves to bleed the system, Front Calipers, rear pinion seal, transmission service with a new pan that has a drain, a gaggle of capacitors to fix the ride control module and a replacement amplifier for the stereo. Still needs an exhaust manifold gasket. The front end got serviced in year 28. On the plus side blank cassettes are increasingly easy to find so I have a solid collection of 90 minute playlists.