Ghostly Spirito: R.I.P Fiat Punto – 1993-2018

Earlier this week, dozens of Europeans and a sprinkling of souls from further afield, united in a common shrug, when the news came that the Fiat Punto has finally been axed after spending years in conditions of wilful neglect.
While it’s been a long, long time since the Punto has fought rivals on a level playing field, that hasn’t always been the case. Once upon a time, the Fiat Punto was a force to be reckoned with, and genuinely one of the most desirable superminis in the showroom. With its number finally up, please join me in a little Hooniverse celebration, eulogy and post-mortem of Fiat’s forgotten family favourite.

When the Fiat Punto touched down in ’93, it filled the shoes of the legendary Giugiaro-designed Fiat Uno. A hard act to follow, you may think, and you’d be right. Remember, though, that the Uno was severely dated at that point, and fashionable new cars like the Opel Corsa, Nissan Micra, Renault Clio and Peugeot 106 meant that rather two few buyers were crossing Fiat’s threshold for comfort. The Punto didn’t arrive a moment too soon, and looked absolutely fantastic when it arrived, with Giugiaro once more wielding the markers.
Even the entry-level models in the range had a sporty look with all the stereotypical Latin brio you could want, and the sportier models were genuinely great to drive. Inside, the dashboard had a strikingly new design that marked a huge step forwards in quality, and somehow avoided the gimmickiness exhibited by certain rivals.

There was a soft-top Punto Cabrio, too, which I reckon was a fantastic looking car. It wore bespoke tail-lights (Fiat presumably wasn’t up to the task of making the regular, tall tail-lights fold away with the roof) and looked far better resolved that the bodge-jobs usually made of supermini convertibles. It might have been a little shaky on dodgy road surfaces (the press image above that displays it on a broken cobbled road seems to be asking for trouble), but it had precious few rivals, and was great fun on the odd occasion that UK buyers caught a moment of sunshine.

The second generation of Punto arrived in ’99, and basically improved the dressing and applied a bit of umami flavour enhancement to the original delicious Italian recipe. There was extra spice, too, in the shape of a saucy new Abarth HGT version. This boasted a 1.8-litre engine crammed beneath that tiny bonnet, which was enough to take it to 130mph – sixty mph arriving in eight seconds en route.
Don’t be too excited by the promisingly named Speedgear depicted above, though – that evocative-sounding name merely referred to a CVT automatic gearbox. This had, after all, been a Fiat staple since the days of the Fiat Uno Selecta, and few who ever drove one will have rated it among their most memorable experiences. Never mind, though; the Speedgear served to expand the Punto’s appeal, and it proved every bit a match for 2002’s new Ford Fiesta, as well as being a willing headlamp donor for the MG X-Power SV.
Then, in 2003, disaster struck.

Fiat administered a facelift so unsympathetic that even the most unskilled of cosmetic surgeons must have pointed and laughed. Out went the previous, sharp, sleek and assertive headlamps and in came replacements that looked like they belonged on a van. For the first time, there was a radiator grille, too, alas, not a subtle, elegantly sculpted, but a sheet of black plastic mesh crammed in a hole that was crudely hacked out of the bonnet lid.
It’s assumed that Fiat’s decision to defile the previously pert nose of the Punto in this way was a kneejerk “everybody else has a grille” reaction, but it could just be that MG had bought up all the Punto headlights, expecting the X-Power SV to sell in the millions, rather than in the dozens.Whatever the reasoning for this rather unfortunate new look, at least it saw the Punto past a new round of pedestrian safety rules that came into play at that time.
In some markets, this generation of Punto soldiered on until 2010, but elsewhere, there was a new kid in town after 2005:

Enter the Grande Punto. The third generation of Punto was perhaps the most baffling of all. As if to signify a leap upmarket — which was never really made — the Grande appellation was added, only to be dropped again a few years down the line, when the facelifted Punto Evo took the Grande’s place. The Grand Punto marked a welcome return to pretty, neatly contoured form, retaining some of the original car’s defining features if not appearing quite so striking.
This time, the Punto shared its ‘Fiat Small Platform’ with General Motors, who used it to underpin a new-generation Opel Corsa, and which would later evolve to form the basis for the Jeep Renegade, with all four wheels driven. Naturally, Fiat SpA’s other Italian brands made full use of the platform, too, with the Alfa Romeo MiTo and Fiat’s commercial Fiorino on the list of applications. It was a good platform. It was a good car, if not quite a world-beater.
By the time the Punto Evo arrived in 2010, the Fiat 500 had exploded onto the scene and, all of a sudden, the Punto looked ever so slightly like yesterday’s news. In an effort to share a bit of the 500 magic, the Evo was given a chrome bonnet adornment that was a pastiche of the 500’s, which in turn was a modern reinterpretation of that on the genuine, proper, little Nuova 500 of the ’60s. Needless to say, it didn’t really sit convincingly on the Punto’s Giuigiaro-penned lines.

After 2012, the name again reverted to simply Punto, and here the story ends. Well, it doesn’t really, but it signifies the moment from which the Punto essentially fell into developmental limbo, and withered where the aggressively marketed 500 and its many, many offshoots flourished. Despite a handful of sporty editions, and a look that remained pretty fetching until the very end, the Punto relied on heavy discounts to retain sales traction, and seemed to be forgotten by even the motoring press. Hardly surprising, given that the final Punto remained in build during the Mk6 Fiesta’s entire lifespan, as well as much of the Mk5 and the birth of the Mk7.
Hardly surprising, then, that the Punto’s proud 5 Star Euro NCAP safety rating, awarded in 2005, was withdrawn in 2017 and replaced with a big-fat zero. This caused widspread mirth and chatter among industry pundits, despite being essentially meaningless — it only signified that newer cars have more in-built safety, not that Punto drivers were suddenly in imminent peril whenever they got behind the wheel.
It did nothing for the Punto’s reputation, though, and to say that sales were slow towards the end would be an understatement of the same magnitude as saying that “global politics is mired in uncertainty”. In the end, the Punto remained in production until 2018 for the simple reason that it was still cost-effective to do so. The Spirto di Punto, a marketing line that was heavily leant on over the years, lives on, though, until the Opel Corsa dies.
And, with Opel and Vauxhall now under PSA ownership, just how long can it last?
(All images courtesy of Fiat Press)

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10 responses to “Ghostly Spirito: R.I.P Fiat Punto – 1993-2018”

  1. Alff Avatar

    PSA – Where brands (and CEOs) go to die.

  2. Alff Avatar

    arrivederci, funny little foreign car that we never knew.

  3. Rover 1 Avatar
    Rover 1

    The headlamp re-use on the MG SV was somewhat ironic as the car itself was a re-skin and slight further development of another Italian car, the Qvale Mangusta, itself the renaming of what had been introduced as the DeTomaso Mangusta, which was in itself a renaming of the initial show car the DeTomaso Bigua.
    In a nice touch, more Fiat light units were used at the rear, these from Bangle’s ‘masterpiece’ the Fiat Coupe,f_auto,h_596,q_auto:eco,w_900/

  4. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    my relationship with the Punto was built on a road trip through Scotland in the mid-90s – complete with my dad being unable to drive stick, my dad popping tires on all the curbs he rode up, my dad constantly getting lost, etc. (he’s a terrible driver even at home in the States, driving on the right).
    tomorrow I’m wrapping up a week in Italy, where the first-gen Punto – the only Punto I ever found very charming, tbh – is still ubiquitous. there are not as many Unos left, but enough that I know I’ll see Puntos next time I’m here.
    but after this trip, my dream Fiat is a first-gen Panda. no competition.

  5. nanoop Avatar

    When the Smart car came out (1994?) we discussed whether the smallness of a car always produces crappy or at least compromised quality. Little did we know then, but a friend used his mother’s Punto as bad example.

  6. Classic Bob Avatar
    Classic Bob

    Amazing.. can’t think of any brand or nameplate Fiat hasn’t succeeded in destroying over time. Once an award winning European car of the year, now defunct years after becoming uncompetitive. Seems to be a pattern to Fiat’s product and brand management.

    1. wunno sev Avatar
      wunno sev

      good news though, they own Chrysler now so that definitely won’t be happening anymore

  7. crank_case Avatar

    Puntos were never the last word in drivers cars, even among euro hatchbacks, but it’s sad for me for two reasons. My first car was a second generation pre-facelfit Fiat Punto Sporting 1.2 16v. It was only 80bhp, but with a half decent chassis, six speed gearbox and an engine that was happy to be revved, it was perfect cheap to run first car for a young driver.
    On a bigger level, it is the true succesor of a line of small cars going back to the Topolino, because if you trace it’s line back through the Uno, 127 (my mothers first car funnily enough), 850 and 600 you get to the Topolino. The original “nuova 500” wasn’t actually a replacement to the Topolino, it was introduced about three years after the 600 which actually replaced the Topolino directly. The 500 begat the 126, Cinquecento, Seicento and finally modern Panda which itself isn’t really a successor to the original Panda, like the new 500 isn’t really a succesor to the 50s 500. Confused? Well it’s hardly surprising when you’re talking about a manufacturer that called one of it’s cars “Type” (Tipo) without a numerical suffix..
    Anyway, it’s the end a surprisingly historic lineage, which is a bit sad.

    1. Monkey10is Avatar

      I always liked the Fiat naming system through the 80s and 90s: Alongside the ‘type’ you mentioned was the ‘one’, the ‘point’, the ‘street’/’rhythm’ (dependent on market), the ‘tide’, the ‘style’ and the ‘sixteen’ (their 4×4 model!).

  8. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    Instead of the Grande Punto, Fiat should have made the Contrapunto. I don’t remember much about them and never drove one, although the larger Tipo I did drive was OK.