What is it?
This is the latest model to receive Fiat Group’s new Multiair technology. The Fiat Punto Evo Abarth gets a 1.4-litre turbocharged engine complete with the clever valve management system to enhance performance (particularly at low engine speeds), and improve economy and emissions.
One of the most significant upgrades is an Alfa Romeo-style switch to allow the driver to alter the car’s throttle response, steering weight and traction settings, though in the Abarth there are only two settings – sport and normal.
Fiat’s Torque Transfer Control system - which reduces understeer by braking whichever front wheel is losing traction - also makes a welcome appearance in the new Punto.
All the style tweaks that distinguish the standard Fiat Punto Evo also appear in the hot Abarth, including piano-black dash fascia, sat-nav docking system, clearer dials and revised styling.
What’s it like?
The engine is a big improvement over the old model. Multiair brings with it impressive low-end torque and general flexibility through the gears, and also makes the engine feel more free-revving. It makes for accessible performance whether you’re cruising home or trying to set a new lap record.
The six-speed gearbox it is mated to is less ideally suited to the Abarth. For a hatch that is intended to be a truly engaging drive the shift is too long and indistinct. It’s an improvement over Fiat gearboxes of old but it’s still not rewarding enough.
That’s not the only slightly unsatisfying aspect of the new Punto Abarth. The steering, though nicely weighted and responsive when in sport mode, always feels artificial and the brakes could use more finesse, having little modulation between light braking and full-on, hazard-lights flashing emergency stopping.
So clearly the Punto Abarth is no dynamic benchmark. But it is by no means a poor car. It has plentiful grip, which the TTC system effectively enhances by dragging the nose into line out of corners, and this together with the predictable handling means you can gainfully throw the Punto around and enjoy every minute.
We were only allowed on the smooth surfaces of Fiat’s Balloco test track, so final judgement on the ride quality will have to wait until a UK test. But what was evident is that there’s noticeably bouncy rebound over undulating surfaces – which could be a problem in urban Britain - but generally the setup seemed reasonably well-judged and coped very well on track.
And in normal mode? This is actually the biggest disappointment. Okay, so maybe around town you’ll want the lighter steering but in truth this softer setting makes the car feel sluggish in its responses. The Punto is clearly designed to appeal to those wanting a performance hatch that doesn’t compromise all elements of comfort and refinement, but it seems unnecessary to offer quite such a soft setting in a car wearing the scorpion badge.
Should I buy one?
If you want the best handling performance hatch available for under £17k, no. Renaultsport will sell you that. But in practice the Punto is a very different prospect to the more focused Clio 200.
It’s a well-priced hatch that offers a pleasing interior, an excellent combination of economy and pace and exploitable performance. The more powerful, similarly priced and arguably more rounded Seat Ibiza Cupra and Skoda Fabia VRS could be its biggest problems, but the Abarth Punto is fun and charismatic. That’s more than enough reason to buy one.