Friday, 19 October 2007

Test Drive - Fiat Grande Punto

Funny things, hire cars. The one you’re given is guaranteed to have been thrashed to within an inch of its life and you seldom receive the car you expect, yet it still always comes as a disappointing surprise. When last week’s rental agreement read ‘Ford Focus or similar’, I suspected the inevitable… and would you believe it, I ended up with a Punto.

Now, there are a lot of fun games that you can play with a hire car, firstly because it’s not yours and secondly because everybody else who’s driven it has ragged the nuts off it already so there’s no guilt. There’s the ‘how deep past the redline can I go before bystanders start wincing?’ game, ‘how many clutchless gear-changes can I make before I lose my bottle?’, and of course the old favourite – ‘seriously… how fast will it go in first gear?’ But, worryingly, the Punto failed to inspire me to indulge in any of this juvenile japery. Why? Because it is so utterly soulless, so mind-numbingly devoid of joy or character that all you can do is sit behind the wheel, switch your brain off and will yourself into the future.

This is a real shame. Fiat used to be a more than just a manufacturer of tedious hatchbacks, they had passion and fire and so much enthusiasm. Their inspired ground-up designs were tastefully complemented by the spicy versions of their more mainstream models - for the former see the Dino Spider and the Coupe 20v Turbo; for the latter, the 500 Abarth and the 131 Abarth Stradale. With the Grande Punto they seem to have pissed away their rich and vibrant history in every possible respect, leaving behind a dry husk that carries one sole tradition that has blighted Fiat for generations: appalling build quality.

The entire concept, one can only assume, is one that was conceived by infants and constructed by sightless jungle mammals. Granted, eight grand isn’t a lot of money for a brand new car but you do get what you pay for… in this case, you get a fresh new model that doesn’t always start first time (this is inexcusable in 2007!), has temperamental rear doors that will only allow you to open them when they can be bothered, and generally feels like it’s shaking itself to pieces. It’s borderline insulting.

The driver’s seat is a particularly miserable place to be. The most irksome feature is the point at the windowline where the doors meet the dash, a collaboration of totally unrelated lines and materials straight from the fuck-you school of design that, once noticed, cannot be ignored. The interior materials creak and groan in exactly the manner you would expect of various different grades of plastic bolted together. The most irritating point, however, is the visibility.

The Grande Punto is seriously unpleasant to drive. Beyond the acre of drab grey plastic stretching across the dash to the windscreen base is a bonnet that slopes away so sharply that you have literally no idea where the front of the car is. But this isn’t the worst thing… no, the A-pillars elevate the car to a whole new league of ineffable crappiness, they draw you to the very cutting edge of bad design. It is impossible to imagine how anyone who designed and built this car could have spoken to anybody who tested it. If they had done, they would have been told; “That A-pillar’s way too fat. I can’t see a bloody thing.” Here’s an interesting test for you – try and drive this car on any road that has a series of reasonably narrow corners (I opted for the Ring of Kerry). You’ll find yourself crawling limply and turgidly around the bends, leaning forward as far as physically possible to see what’s coming towards you and still having desperately little visibility. Shocking.

All of this is academic really, however, as you’re never going to be travelling fast enough for it to get you into trouble. The 77bhp 1.4-litre engine is described by Fiat as ‘spirited’. A more appropriate description would be ‘barely noticeable’. Acceleration is basically non-existent in any gear and at any revs; allowing it to just roll downhill was infinitely more exciting than constantly having to mash the right-pedal into the carpet in a vain attempt to coax some life out of the retarded little unit. Indeed, opening the bonnet revealed what appeared to be some sort of Moulinex.
So no, I didn’t like the Grande Punto. Aside from the fuel economy (which, admittedly, was excellent), this is a car utterly without merit. It used to be the case that the Corsa was the default choice for people who had no idea what they were talking about and didn’t give a toss what they drove; now that Vauxhall have got their act together Fiat have filled that position perfectly. Put simply, this is a car by idiots for idiots. Don’t buy one, please – just don’t. Life’s too short to inflict this kind of misery upon yourself.

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