Fiat is aiming for total group sales to rise to four million in five years, from a current level of about 2.3 million.
When the new Punto goes on sale in October, with a first showing at the London Motor Show, it will sport new looks, a new Fiat logo showing the manufacturer's name, rather than the current three-line image on Punto bonnets, and a range of features aimed to get it noticed in the crowded supermini sector. Prime rivals include the Peugeot 206 and Renault Clio.
Starting prices have yet to be announced, but they are likely to be around the £8,000 mark for the base model. Although the car is immediately recognisable as a Punto, its lines have changed considerably, with clear glass headlights, new rear light clusters and boot shape and distinctive three and five-door grilles. In 1993, when the current Punto was launched, there were 14 competing models from rival manufacturers, but this has risen to 21 today and is expected to hit 24 by 2001.
With competition hotting up and Fiat determined to build on the 3.7 million sales of the Punto it has notched up in the last six years, new features such as standard electric power steering are included throughout the three and five-door range. The power steering includes a 'City' button, which provides lighter wheel turning for low speed manoeuvring and more feedback as speed increases.
A cabriolet is not planned for the next two years but the current Punto soft-top will continue production to fill the gap. The current 1.2 8-valve and 1.2 16-valve power units are carried over from the current Punto, but a new 1.8-litre 130bhp engine has been added along with two new diesels, both 1.9-litre, including a first-in-class common rail option.
Inside, the interior is still a quite plasticky affair, but instruments are clear, the steering is height adjustable and there is plenty of storage space, including netting on the side doors.
Most controls fall easily to hand, although the electric mirror switches are jammed between the driver's seat and the handbrake and are very difficult to reach. On the road in the left-hand drive models available at the Turin launch, the 1.2 8-valve engine felt ill at ease tied to the new Punto and lacked the pull needed for either town driving or motorways, but the 1.2-16-valve, which provides a rise in power from 60 to 80bhp compared to the 8-valve and is expected to be the main seller, was a totally different experience.
It pulled hard through the revs and was quiet at motorway speeds, although hills could be hard work. The 1.2-litre 16-valve engine will form the basis for a broad part of the Punto range, including the Sporting, which gets a six-speed manual or a standard seven-speed auto Continuously Variable Transmission, which also provides a 'Tiptronic' style sequential gearchange.
Drivers may find that with a 1.2-litre engine in front of them, they are better off just leaving the cars in fully automatic. However, this tends to discourage harsh acceleration, as the engine sits at constant revs, while the belt-drive system in the gearbox changes ratios. So, for example, pulling on to a motorway from standstill, when you push the accelerator hard the engine will sit at 5,000rpm until you lift your right foot. Certainly, the CVT's popularity will depend on its price premium in this cost-driven sector, with early estimates of a £500 extra cost.
The diesel units mirror the petrol units for power, with a 60 bhp normally aspirated model, which was better than the 1.2-litre eight-valve petrol, but was a bit breathless when accelerating. However, the 80bhp JTD common-rail unit - a retuned version of the 105bhp 1.9 engine found in Marea, Bravo and Brava - was quiet, refined and pulled like a train from low revs, ideal for keeping up with city traffic.
Uprated suspension in all models, including a new rear axle arrangement, gave a comfortable ride over bumps and undulations, with little cornering roll. The 1.8-litre petrol model -expected as a three-door only in the UK - was labelled quick, but lacked the mid-range punch needed for quick overtaking.
The Punto was roomy for both driver and passenger and in the rear, space was adequate if the front seats were not pushed right back, but a middle three-point seatbelt was a bonus for safety. In the boot, a key battle ground in the supermini sector, Fiat is claiming it has a winner with class leading levels of space, at 297 litres in the five-door and 264-litres in the three-door. A high sill could make for difficult access, but otherwise the space was smooth.
Features likely to be seen as options in the UK include a 'follow me home' system, which keeps the car's headlights on for a set time, to allow the driver an illuminated walk to their doorway. A front driver's airbag is likely to be standard throughout the range, with passenger and side airbags also available. Satellite navigation is also likely to be an option when the car arrives on October 19, following its European launch in September. Specification levels will be S, ELX - SX is being dropped - HLX for both diesel and petrol, then Sporting for six- or seven-speed versions of the 1.2-litre 16-valve and HGT for the 1.8-litre petrol.
Mike Briscoe, product manager for Fiat UK, said: 'There is a wider range and more equipment than the current model and it provides a good package to fleets. We are finding that, particularly with the success of the Alfa Romeo 156, companies are willing to talk to us about the whole Fiat Group range, including the Punto, which with the increasing importance of the user-chooser market, has a role to play. With new competitors coming into the market all the time, we are making sure that our presence in the market still remains strong.'