To achieve such success the new Punto must be good - and it is - because it is competing in a sector where top notch cars abound. Fiat singles out the Peugeot 206 and Renault Clio - both new models - as specific competitors. But to that duo you can add the soon-to-be-revised Ford Fiesta, the all-new Volkswagen Polo which will shortly enter showrooms and the highly-respected Toyota Yaris to name but three.
Fiat is confident it has a winner in the UK marketplace and is particularly targeting local authority and health authority fleets as well as user-choosers.
Fleet NewsNet went to Sicily - one of the 'homes' of Fiat as it has a factory on the island which builds Punto - for the launch of the UK specced range. We had first driven the car at its international launch in the summer. While prices will not be announced until the London Motor Show, Fiat has pledged that the cars will be ultra-competitive and it is understood that means below £8,000 for the entry model.
Old Punto won the 1995 European Car of the Year Award and new Punto with its three and five-door variants features a range of world firsts in the supermini sector. Notable among them in the 16-version range are a facility to operate the electric windows after the key has been removed from the ignition; a follow-me-home system which allows the headlights to remain on after the car has been locked for a maximum of five minutes to shed light on a parking area and make the route to the front door safer; and a trip computer.
In addition, satellite navigation is standard on the range-topping HGT and standard on all models an excellent 'City' feature gives additional power steering to help manoeuvre in tight spaces. While many 'unique' features are only to be found on manufacturers' range-topping models, Fiat is to be applauded for making many of them standard on its entry-level model. The three-door model is overtly sporty with its spoilers, concave rear hatch line and raised rear light cluster, while the five-door has a convex hatch with the rear light cluster flush with the boot lid.
The five-door is claimed to have the largest luggage compartment in its class at 297 litres. And it is not only in the boot compartment that Punto is large. On ELX versions there are 26 storage compartments - many of them on other models as well.
Five engine options are available. Three petrol - the breathless entry-level 1.2 litre 8v 60 bhp unit, the superb reworked 1.2 litre 16v 80 bhp (both engines are in the current Punto) and the 1.8 16v 130 bhp in the HGT which unfortunately I did not drive. However, colleagues applauded the engine's performance - it is the powerplant derived from the unit found in the Barchetta and Coupe - while criticising the HGT's harsh ride due partly to the lowered suspension and poor road surfaces. In addition there are two diesel engines - a new 1.9 litre normally aspirated indirect injection unit and the torquey1.9 litre JTD common rail unit already in other Fiat models, tuned to produce 80 bhp in the Punto. Fiat is the only manufacturer to offer a common rail diesel unit in the supermini sector. Adding to the list of firsts in the sector are Speedgear automatic transmission versions - Sporting (seven-speed) and ELX (six-speed) - which make use of Fiat's electronically controlled constant velocity (CVT) Formula One-style gearbox giving drivers both manual and automatic modes. While most Punto models feature a standard five-speed manual transmission, the Sporting is also available with a six-speed box.
The cobbled streets of the launch venue gave the Punto, at least at low speed, a solid workout and was testimony to the success of the new rear suspension arrangement. While the hairpin bends would have easily found out any body roll, roadholding or power shortage problems - witness the 1.2 8v. The Punto - apart from the entry model - passed all tests and it also showed its mettle in the noise and vibration stakes.
Fiat expects 60% of sales to be three-door variants with the volume sellers the entry-level 1.2 8v and 1.2 16v ELX. There is no doubt the new Punto stands out from more than 20 different models and for my money, the 1.2 16v or the 1.9 JTD are the pick of the engines. And while we have to wait until next week for exact prices, the new car is sure to be a sound bet. Whether the Punto - Europe's best-selling car in 1997 - becomes the UK's best-selling supermini is doubtful. But Fiat has brought to the market a stylish, functional car which should ensure the Punto receives significant attention from style-conscious and cost-conscious fleet managers and company car drivers alike.