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Thursday, 7 June 2012

200th Post - Real Road Test: Fiat Grande Punto 1.2 Active

Indeed.
Amazingly, due to a six-month spike in productivity (compared to last year at least), I'm already up to my 200th blog post. That seems like a lot. All that typing, all those Google image search results that get me most of my hits (now over 30,000), the occasional pat on the back, it's great, but really I'm just enjoying having my own place to vent, report and generally say what I want without having to wait for an opportunity to say it in some comments section and get abuse from ignorant morons. I felt like doing something special or different for this one, so instead of rambling on about whatever, I'm going to road test my own car. Here goes!

[By the way, there's a search bar now, to your right. Hopefully you'll find it pretty useful]

The number is in the hope that I do this well enough to do more. I've decided the virtual road test doesn't count.
Let's face it, if you're going to review a car, it's best to start with your own, the one you know best. Having owned and driven this car for over two years now, I like to think I know it pretty well, and to be honest it's been a little bit like being in a relationship. I was excited to have it at first (it being my first [working] car), then over the first few months I slowly got used to it, then I found problems with it and we had a couple of downs, and now things have more or less levelled out. It has pros and cons, which I shall delve into soon, and in many ways it is sort of a metaphor for me. I won't go too far into that though. I'm aware that a lot of my non-video posts are, well... let's say they can potentially "challenge the attention span" of the average internetter, so I'll break it down into sections in order for you to be able to get to a certain point and then stop and look away for a bit, should you need to.

The Facts
The car you see above is a 2007 (registered) Fiat Grande Punto 1.2 Active. So called because it was the biggest car in its class upon release, Grande Punto literally translates from Italian as "Big Point". Does this make it a major statement from Fiat, or is it a subliminal message about male owners? No. It's neither of those things. Don't be silly. It's simply a Punto which is big. And heavy - the 1.2 G-P is around 155kg heavier than the Mk.II Punto 1.2 it replaces, at a chubby 1015kg, yet it has the same engine. Extra weight is bad. It means the engine needs to work harder, thus using more fuel, and having the same power in a heavier car makes it slower. There are other weight-related problems too, but more facts first. The 1242cc 'FIRE' is naturally-aspirated, producing (when new) a mere 64bhp and 75lb/ft of torque, enough to go from 0-60 in 14.5 seconds and onto an official top speed of 96mph, although once on a motorway at night I got it over 100mph going slightly downhill. But don't tell anyone. In 2006, 'Grande' in the supermini class meant 4.03m long, 1.49m tall and 1.69m wide and weighing between 1015kg and 1140kg (2,240–2,513 lb) sans occupants.

Monies
The red one pictured below is a nicer one than mine, on 17" alloy wheels. It also has a panoramic sunroof, something my car does without because it's lighter... by which I mean cheaper. In fact, the whole car in 2009 was only £5300 (plus sneaky dealer offers), and that was before the model was updated to become the Punto Evo, which adds much cleaner, punchier engines, a better interior and a worse front bumper that looks like a big plastic moustache. Last year, it was updated a second time, with less 'tache and more newness like Stop/Start, better infotainment and a smaller, lighter, cleaner, more efficient, more powerful 'TwinAir' Inline-2 turbo engine replacing the 1.2 Inline-4 that I've got. I've driven that engine in a 500, and it's a wonderfully fizzy, put-puttering little engine that would probably be the same or cheaper to insure and is congestion charge exempt. I wonder how much an engine swap would cost...

[UPDATE: Around £600]

The reason I mention these updated versions is that G-Ps of my one's age will now be notably cheaper because of them. In fact - holy shit - a quick search on Auto Trader shows 56-reg 1.2s going for as little as £2000! Dammit...

The Exterior Design Bit

The stand-out fact about the Grande Punto's styling is that Giorgetto Giugiaro himself styled it to look like a Maserati 3200GT, which, in essence, makes it basically the same car. In my mind. Sadly he forwent the delicious "boomerang tail lights" featured on the Maser, but as you can see, the front end is pretty much the same, apart from being taller and shorter. Minor details. While the supercar comparisons stop at the end of the A-pillars, it does look good for a hatchback. Very Italian in some ways, which makes sense what with it being a Fiat styled by Giugiaro and everything. The tapering side windows and big C-pillars limit visibility slightly when parking, but look cool. The short-but-high tail lights make the rear end look a little bit tall, but only on smaller wheels like the 15-inchers my one's sporting. Overall it looks very stylish, and quite happy somehow. It must be the shape of the lower grilles and the round (but pointy... or should I say Punto-y?) headlights.

In terms of colours, you could be boring and get a black or white one, you could be super-boring and buy a silver one (rant post to follow), or you could buy it in Maserati red or a very bright non-metallic orange. This looks better than it sounds like it does. I think yellow was also available.

Getting In
Stepping inside, you're met with a sea of grey. Actually, that's not fair. You're met with a sea of black punctuated with grey. Being the Active trim, it also has black fabric seats punctuated with grey bubbles. Visually thrilling, it is not. The wing-like grey trim across the dashboard is made of a strange material. It's not hard like plastic, nor is it leather. The top surface is pliable enough for you to leave a shallow impression of your finger nail in it temporarily. It's not really foam, nor is it rubber. Whatever it is, it's accented by some silver plastic that almost looks like chrome, but definitely isn't, and has a metallic silver plastic P logo on the far left (or right in a LHD car). I hope that all made sense. Here's a picture:

The hazard lights button is the brightest thing here...
Most of it feels pretty solid. The dash buttons are hard shiny plastic and yet have a fairly solid press action, although the heater knobs don't twist with any millimetric precision. Front legroom is vast for a car this size, though, and rear legroom is fine for anyone below 6ft, although I'd only want to be in the back for a journey under 10 miles. That much or over though, and you'd start feeling pretty rough as there's no a/c in the basic model. Front seats bend down and slide forwards when you pull up the handle (on the right of the above picture) and push the seat forwards. Not everyone can work this out straight away. The boot is OK, but can't fit a bass guitar or longer golf clubs in it, which have to ride on the back seat.

The Ooh-That's-Pretty-Cool Bit
This is the Active trim level, presumably so-called because the driver is "too active" to look down and see all the blank non-buttons on the dashboard. That said, there are some interesting little features that come standard on all Grande Puntos, like steering-wheel-mounted radio/volume controls, a boot release button in the dashboard and something called "City Steering", which is when the hydraulic power assistance does all the work for you at the touch of a button and makes the steering almost weightless, so you can whip the 'wheel around with consummate ease when parking or otherwise city-ing. To be honest though, I only used this function once or twice for the hell of it and haven't pressed the button for at least a year. Also, in 5th gear, the speedometer and tachometer dials are perfectly in sync with each other. This amused me as much as perfectly parallel dials can amuse a somewhat average human.

The standard stereo didn't have an iPod socket, so for Christmas I got one that does.

The Driving Position
The seats are a little hard, making for cheesy bums after half an hour or more of driving, but the vertically-adjustable steering wheel and manually adjusting seats mean six-footers can get comfortable pretty easily. The distance between steering wheel and gear stick is more or less a prefect fit for my arm, feeling closer than the Citro├źn DS3's (because the seat is lower) and requiring less wrist-bending than the new Honda Civic's. The 'wheel is shaped nicely for hands but feels cheap with its elephant-arse-effect black vinyl, and its buttons are within thumb's distance with your hands just below the "ten to two" position, although I often find my hands sliding down towards "quarter to three" because of either laziness or the mouldings that get in the way unless you have perfect driving posture.

The Engine
As I've mentioned earlier, the engine is from the previous Punto, but has the same power. Have you ever run the 100m with a rucksack containing 15% of your bodyweight? That's what the engine's doing when you accelerate. Poor engine. It fizzes and revs freely and tries hard, but to overtake anything powered by an engine, you need a nice big run up and at least 3000rpm in a gear no higher than 3rd. It's quite a characterful engine, really, and you can hear it at all times. Unlike the tyre roar or the wind noise at speed, this isn't very annoying. In fact, I like hearing the engine. It means you don't ever have to look at the dials to know when to change gear, and it's an element of communication that lets you know what the car's doing. When I drove new cars at EcoVelocity, I found cars like the Honda Civic to be very muted in comparison, because quietness is considered refinement. Sure, it felt very plush and solid, but it meant I left it in a high gear for too long and missed the sound. Having said that, the Fiat's four-pot is hardly operatic, but does sound eager for a 1.2 and again, somehow Italian.

Of course, being a teenager with a small hatchback, it was only a matter of time before I secured a cheap engine mod. The K&N 57i induction kit promised an increase in power (only about 3-5bhp, but still) and a "noticeable difference in acceleration". User reviews also reckon that the fuel economy is improved - in a Mk.V Golf R32 it improved it by a third according to one guy - but I never measured it, so I wouldn't know. In the end, all it did was add noise. To be fair, I did notice a difference in acceleration... because I was accelerating harder anyway to hear the new induction roar. So it was just as much a psychological upgrade as anything, but the improved noise at mid-high RPM was another added bonus. Above 4000rpm it sounded horribly thrashy and tortured, whereas now it sounds more eager, not that there's any point going far over 5000rpm anyway, when peak torque is at 3000rpm and acceleration has more or less dropped off. I did once, and got it up to 6500rpm, where the limiter is. The induction kit is a better noise upgrade than a cat back exhaust, partly because it was £80 instead of £200, but mostly because it's only loud when you put your foot down rather than buzzing away the whole time. This means it's only loud when you want it to be loud, spurring you on when you get to open the taps on a slip road or B-road, or acting as a substitute for a horn on occasion.

As for fuel economy, it would be better with a higher power-to-weight ratio than 63bhp/tonne, because you have to use a lot of right foot to do the same as a 1.4 (which in the G-P makes 20 more horses, or 40 more with a turbo). On a 550-mile road trip from Wokingham to Swansea to Plymouth and home on the A303, I averaged 37mpg, which seems pretty good, but a modern small petrol car should really be getting more like 45mpg or more. The TwinAir probably would...

Other engines in the original range were 1.4 NA or Turbo petrol engines, or turbo diesel engines in sizes 1.3 (75 or 90bhp), 1.6 or 1.9 (120 or 130bhp), with a range-topping Abarth making 155bhp, or 180bhp with the Essesse kit.

As for the 1.2? For all its admirable efforts, it just feels gutless in this car. It didn't stay in the range for very long anyway...

Driving It
Considering this car is meant for the cobbled streets of Turin, the suspension isn't very good at ironing out bumps. In fact, even those snaky bits of resurfacing where gas pipes go across the road are picked up, let alone potholes. Potholes are horrendous. It can be slightly bouncy over speed bumps too, but generally the ride just reflects the road surface. Bumpy road = bumpy ride. Too firm, I reckon. Happily, the handling is much better. There's a vast amount of grip from the responsive front end, so when you start driving, ahem, enthusiastically, the Grande Punto holds on well in bends of most kinds. The grip is reassuring when you find out that there's quite a lot of body roll at speed, caused - I reckon - by the heavy, safety-laden body that makes this Punto grand(e). Because you don't topple over though, it just makes fast corners more amusing somehow. Occasionally if you take a tight corner too fast, you get understeer from the narrow front tyres, but one could argue that you should've slowed down more anyway. Fool. On that note, the brake pedal - while responsive - doesn't travel very far, so there's no opportunity to learn the heel-toe technique.

That said, my brakes are brilliant... mostly because the solid steel discs that the lighter-engined 1.2 should have aren't on this car. The reason for this is that the rest of the range uses vented discs, and the Italian workers couldn't be bothered to wait for the parts to arrive, so they just slapped some 1.4 brakes on there instead. Finding this out when shopping for brake pads greatly pleased my mother. It also explains why they work so well. The clutch has become slightly soft to use over the last two years, partly because me and my brother both learned to drive in it, but I read somewhere that they can wear out relatively quickly. Still works though, and it makes it easier to set off in 2nd gear from time to time (which now that I think about it may not be helping). The gear change itself has become notchy going from 1st to 2nd, but otherwise an easy, light throw going into higher gears, and you can hook it into neutral with one finger, which is nice.

The power steering helps too much in my opinion. While it makes it light and easy enough to cruise with just index fingers and thumbs on the wheel, when you're actually cornering there isn't enough feel to it. You just kind of turn the wheel and change direction. This is true on the 500 as well (although the younger, smaller car is improved slightly over the G-P), so Fiat just needs a different power steering system, I reckon.

The rear window only just fills the whole rear view mirror, and the sloping Maserati nose means you can't see the front, so perfect parking isn't as easy as it could be in a small hatchback like this.

The Negative Bit
This isn't relevant to the text, it just looks cool
This is where I complain about build quality, unfortunately. Before that, I will say that the Fiat has proven very reliable mechanically, never overheating or breaking down, so the whole "Fix It Again Tony" joke is redundant here. Overall quality from the Italian brand has been going up ever since the rebirth of the Panda, and the only problem this car has ever had mechanically is when my brother ran into a kerb at 30mph or so and bent a wheel out of shape. Alas, what money they've spent on mechanicals, they haven't spent on matching Audi for interior quality, although it's true that older Fiats feel notably cheaper inside than this.

The first interior niggle happened during winter, when it was hibernating under a blanket of snow. During the time it sat there, the lower part of the dashboard must've grown and shrunk, as the rear window heater and recirculation buttons had sunken into the dash. As a result, I've had to press my left thumb hard on an area near the button and hit the button with my right hand to use the rear window heater. This is fine when stationary, but it doesn't turn itself off, so I've occasionally had to act fast after checking for upcoming obstacles...

I think the snow may have had an effect on the windscreen washer jets, as they stopped spraying anything. You heard the noise of them working, but nothing came out. This turned out to be because they'd clogged up, something I didn't know until I'd spent weeks driving into bright sunsets with dirt all over the windscreen, making it hard to see where I was going. They've been cleaned out twice, working perfectly afterwards, but seem to clog back up very quickly. Also, the plastic interior trim under the windscreen where the screen heater vents are has lifted up at one end (which doesn't impede on visibility but doesn't look great either), a piece of trim containing sound-proofing near my right foot isn't screwed on properly and comes loose, and the right-hand hinge for the folding rear bench has come out of its socket and won't go back in, so the seat doesn't fold flat or fix in place properly, which occasionally means the right-hand seatbelt plays hide and seek behind it. I get the feeling an Audi or Honda wouldn't do these things.

The TL;DR Bit
In case you've scrolled here from impatience, here's a brief summary:
Facts: 1248cc, 64bhp, 75lb/ft, 1015kg, 0-60 in 14.5, ~100mph, 4.03x1.69x1.49m (LxWxH), ~37-40mpg.
Monies: I bought this for £5300 before the Punto was updated twice. It would now sell for about £2000-2200. Cheap to insure.
Exterior: Stylish, secretly a Maserati, visibility slightly compromised for style.
Interior: Big for a small car, questionable materials but better quality than previous Fiats.
Pretty Cool: Steering wheel audio controls, parallel dials in 5th gear, City Steering a nice idea, but I don't use it.
Driving Position: Decently adjustable, comfy for six-footers despite slightly hard fabric seat, everything within reach.
Engine: Fizzy and characterful, but overwhelmed by the weight. K&N 57i kit adds noise when you want it.
Driving: Rolls at speed, ride's too firm and steering's too light, but amusing on the right road, with plenty of grip.
Negatives: Overworked engine means fuel economy suffers, interior build quality not great.

Verdict: It has its pros and cons, for sure. It's slow, there's too much NVH on motorways, the interior's deteriorated slightly and it's sluggish at best unless you floor it in 2nd gear. But, it's cheap to buy, cheap to run, big inside with a decent enough boot and it's a charming car to drive that looks good without being overstyled. Rating it is difficult then, because it depends what you want or need. What I will say is that you definitely need a 1.4 and air conditioning if you're considering one.

A chance encounter with an identically-specced Mk.II Punto 1.2 Active. Sorry it's a poorly-framed photo.
The Grande Punto definitely looks more substantial IMO
Small Blog V8 Rating: 64/100

9 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your double century! And on a good review as well.

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  2. Michael, you should really think about a career in motor journalism, although I guess it's just for the love eh? I had an interesting two hour chat with Paul Weaver last night, the Guardian F1 correspondent (although he's more into cricket) I think that's a job for someone more your age ;-)

    Congrats on all the work
    Dave Anderson

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  3. What a great review, well expressed opinions and lots of "tongue in cheek" humour, fabulous and much more readable than a typical Jeremy Clarkson equivalent. If I was you, I'd consider extending your scope to include other products that young people may find interesting. How about music, drugs & rave venues to start with? :-) Anyway, keep it up, I've bookmarked this URL and will be reading future publications with interest.

    Colin Jones

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  4. Thanks for the kind words! We'll see how the whole automotive-design-at-university plan pans out first before I try writing for newspapers or magazines.

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