FIAT is obviously keen to let you know that it now offers a CVT continuously variable transmission option on the 1,2-litre Fiat Punto. That can be the only reason why the gearlever knob and housing is finished in bright, shiny silver, while the rest of the interior retains the same dark plastic as the first Punto we tested in our November 2004 issue.

Then again, the silver lever does operate what is probably the car’s most “stand-out” feature... Speedgear, a CVT transmission that offers three different drive options, two automatic and one manual, and helps make the Punto potentially a very relaxed car to drive.

The default setting, in the normal drive position, provides a sporty response that allows for higher revs. Foot flat in this mode sees the rev counter needle rise and settle just beyond the 5 000 mark as the torque converter transmits drive to the pulley while the system’s steel belt adapts the ratios. This style of driving makes the 59 kW engine sound a little overworked, and a noticeable whine can be heard.

Depressing the “E” button next to the gearlever sets the revs at a lower, less“racy” level. This mode is aimed at improving fuel economy, and allowing the power unit to operate more within its comfort zone. Now the steady increase in speed takes place with the revcounter settling around the less strained 3 000 mark, though plant your right foot and revs rise quickly.

For a more personal touch, sliding the shifter to the left provides the equivalent of six ratios, which are engaged by a push up or down on the lever. “Gear” changes are swift and sporty in this setting.

So, with a gearbox as sparkling as its operating lever, can the rest of the Punto match up? As mentioned in our first test, the Punto, while sporting classy European lines, is let down slightly by its new nose and grille design. This conservative look tends to blend the car into everyday traffic, rather than making the kind of statement for which previous small Fiats have been famous. Standard 14-inch rims with 60 series tyres lift the side profile design, though the front mags on our test car did pick up brake dust quickly.

Interior comfort levels are fairly high, adding to the relaxed driving nature of the car. Front seats offer enough adjustment to easily find a comfortable driving position. While the driver’s seat doesn’t have much side bolstering, you do tend to sink into the cushion, providing some support. Rear legroom is above average for this class of vehicle.

Handy storage bins and pockets scattered around the interior would benefit from some non-slip rubber linings, as the hard plastic surfaces do little to prevent objects from rattling around.

All controls and dials work well. Remote controls for the radio and CD player are positioned on the steering wheel. Air-con dials are the round/twist type. The two switches for the standard front electric windows are awkwardly situated in the centre of the console. The optional electric mirror switches, next to the base of the handbrake, are also difficult to get at. The tailgate can only be opened via a lever in the driver’s footwell, or by using the key externally, which can be inconvenient.

The most notable button on the facia operates the “CITY” steering function, which makes the already light steering even lighter at speeds under 40 km/h. This comes in very handy for parking or tight manoeuvres

Performance delivered by the four-cylinder 1,2-litre engine paired with the CVT is fair. There is a slight delay in proceedings between planting the accelerator and revs rising to “scream” levels, but once the car gets going it’ll reach the 100 km/h mark, from standstill, in just over 14 seconds. Top speed levels out at 162 km/h.

The standard ABS brakes on our test unit worked well in our 10-stop emergency braking test, delivering an average stopping time from 100 km/h of 2,99 seconds. However, the system did need some careful modulation in everyday driving, as it tended to make the transition from smooth to sharp rather quickly, for only a small increase in pedal pressure.

Suspension settings are biased more towards comfort than sporty handling, so there’s a fair amount of body roll through tight corners but, once the car settles, grip is acceptable. Easily controllable understeer is the result of overeagerness. While the suspension does see off most bumps, more serious ones can thud through to the cabin.

Test Summary

Although we said that the engine in the 1,3 JTD Punto, tested previously, was the most endearing quality of that car, the Speedgear CVT has to qualify as the highlight of this test car. The relaxed nature of the transmission, driven in everyday conditions, together with the CITY light steering option, does much to lift the car’s appeal and compensate for the otherwise average looks and character. Fuel economy is unfortunately below

Original article from Car