Italian car maker Fiat continues to rebuild its appeal with Australian drivers and brings back the Punto small hatchback

Through the ’60s and ’70s Fiats were very popular in Australia with models such as the 500, 600, 850, 124, 125, 128 and 850 coupé. Some of those models were assembled locally and were as familiar as Minis or Mazdas, but quality blemishes, fading sales and the varying commitment of importing companies saw Fiats almost disappear.

In 2013 Fiat buyers can be assured the cars are now backed by the Italian giant’s own operation in Australia, which also distributes the group’s other makes, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler and Jeep.

Continuity of sales, service and parts support and a regular procession of fresh models should be cornerstones for any buyer intending to give their loyalty to a car make. So now the pieces appear to be in place for Australians to again experience the particular style and gusto of these small Italian cars.

The new five-door Punto hatch comes in three variants – Pop, Easy and Lounge – priced from $16,000 drive-away. It’s classified as a ‘light’ car, meaning its rivals are the likes of Toyota Yaris, Suzuki Swift and similar.

All Punto models are powered by a 1.4 litre, 57 kilowatt petrol engine which is equipped with an idle-stop system that stops and re-starts the engine in traffic to save fuel and emissions. It’s attached to either a five-speed manual or five-speed Dualogic robotised semi-automatic transmission. It’s fair to say the aforementioned gusto comes from this Fiat’s personality, not its outright performance, which is adequate for the car’s size and type rather than speedy. But it drives nicely and I like the Dualogic semi-auto transmission, which is essentially a manual with a self-changing mechanism.

In auto mode it changes gears itself, though sometimes not with the same smoothness as a full auto. Alternatively, the driver can change gears as in a manual should more control be needed.

Fiat quality has come a long way and the Punto is nicely fitted out. The Pop interior boasts a six-speaker audio system with steering wheel controls, now-essential Bluetooth phone connectivity, and daytime running lamps. The auto transmission is $1500 extra on the drive-away Pop price but standard on the Easy and Lounge models, which are priced at $19,300 and $21,800 respectively excluding on-road costs.

Prices quoted do not include statutory and dealer on-road charges unless otherwise stated. Prices correct at time of writing.