uca Ciferri & Wim Oude Weernink TURIN - The new Fiat Punto will feature two distinctive body styles, following a trend set by the Bravo and Brava.
'We were looking for a greater differentiation, with distinctive three- and five-door models,' said Giuseppe Perlo, vice president of product development.
The segment is getting crowded. Perlo said the number of entrants in the European supermini segment has grown from 14 in 1993, the year the Punto was launched, to 21 today. It will grow to 24 models by 2001.
'By creating two different body styles we can better meet customer demands,' said Peter Fassbender, exterior chief designer for volume models at Fiat.
He said the three-door Punto is aimed at young, sporty buyers, while the five-door is more conservative. Fassbender said that the three-door model is enhanced by more vertical design elements and graphic lines, while the five-door has more horizontal styling cues. But both cars feature the vertical tail lamps that characterize the outgoing Punto.
The new Punto is equipped with five engines. The 1.2-liter, eight-valve FIRE, delivering 60hp, is only available with a five-speed manual transmission. The 1.2-liter, 16-valve FIRE, delivering 80hp, is offered with four gearboxes: five- and six-speed manual and two continuously variable transmissions.
Called Speedgear, this new electronically-controlled system has two automatic modes, normal and economy, plus a manual shift with sequential engagement. The Speedgear features six 'manual gears' on the Punto ELX, and seven on the Sporting version.
The sporty Punto HGT, powered by a 1.8-liter, 16-valve, 130hp engine, comes only with five-speed manual transmission.
The diesels are both four-cylinder, eight-valve, 1.9-liter units. They deliver 60hp in the normally aspirated, prechamber version, and 80hp in the JTD, common-rail direct-injection turbo version. Both have five-speed manual gearboxes.
The new Punto is also fitted with an electric power steering system, called Dualdrive. It offers two settings: normal and 'city,' which makes the steering lighter at slow urban speeds. The steering system automatically returns to the normal position at speeds over 70kph.
Fiat did not seek big increases in performance with the new Punto, nor did it intend to offer extremely low fuel consumption.
'We want to achieve lower fuel consumption by improving our standard engines. We were not looking for record low fuel consumption figures,' said Perlo.
Fiat claims the Punto three-door has a similar cargo capacity to its closest rivals, 264-liters, while the five-door's 297-liter capacity is the best in its class. Fiat has also concentrated on maximizing interior storage space. The five-door Punto has 26 individual storage areas, including a small drawer under the front passenger seat.
B-platform director Renato Zambrano said around 80 percent - or 3,600 out of a total of 4,500 parts - of the Punto is new. It also has a totally new rear suspension. The new Punto is cheaper to build than the outgoing version, but Fiat refused to say by how much.
Fiat said that the existing Punto cabriolet will remain in production for another one or two years. It said it won't be replaced by a new car based on the revised styling.
Development of the Punto began 38 months ago and the design was frozen 24 months ago. A styling competition was held between I.De.A, ItalDesign, independent design consultant Leonardo Fioravanti, and Fiat's own design department. The outgoing Punto was created by ItalDesign.
After two months, ItalDesign and Fiat were asked to develop their ideas further. The Fiat proposal was finally chosen.