Hatchbacks are by far the most sensible category of vehicles to own. Small, efficient and practical, they are ideal to zip about without much fuss. With premium hatchbacks throwing in more and more creature comforts these days, things get better and the hatch starts making even more sense. But there is one aspect where they always lag behind. And that is the thrill of the drive. Sure, the small size and low weight of the hatch makes for a zippy drive, but what it tends to lack is raw power. The small engines are often tuned for high efficiency and if you are an enthusiast, that is a big compromise that can ruin the experience behind the wheels.
The answer to this conundrum is the hot hatch. Combining the practicality of the hatch and the thrill of a small sports car, the hot hatch remains quite the rage world over. However, the Indian market has always been deprived of a decent, affordable one until the uber stylish Fiat Abarth Punto was launched last year.
Coming out of the stable of Fiat’s performance division, the Abarth Punto was launched during the last quarter of 2015. Although not specced to be a blazing hot hatch, it is more like a teaser before the big reveal. So till the Polo GTI or the 180 bhp version of the Abarth Punto come along, this remains the benchmark and our window to the world of performance oriented premium hatchbacks in the country. But does the race car DNA and performance upgrade impress? Is it a good enough package to entice customers to spend INR 9.99 lacs on it? We find out.
We had the Abarth Punto with us for close to two weeks in the funky Hip-Hop Black colour option, and drove for around 1200 kms in and out of town. We have to admit that it got us a lot of attention wherever we went. Never before have we been subjected to so much curiosity on the roads while driving a small car. Or even a mid sized car for that matter. One reason could be that you don’t see too many of these on the roads. But there is no taking away from the fact that this car has a rockstar appeal. People stopped us at signals, gave us the thumbs up and a young Punto owner tailed us some distance before catching up at the signal and enquiring about its performance. He was not aware that a performance version of the Punto even existed, and said he would have opted for it had he known. Folks at Fiat Chrysler India, please note.
The Abarth Punto is based on the extremely handsome Punto Evo, and maintains its basic structure, with an overdose of rough, tough and sporty styling elements that take matters to another level. The design may look a bit dated to some (the Punto after all, has been around for a while), but it still holds its own with its Italian flair, well proportioned structure and taut lines. The upmarket European feel is evident, although fit & finish is not really upto the German standards. With a superior black paint finish, blazing red decals and body graphics, sporty side skirting, contrasting ORVM caps and a bold scorpion emblem on the roof, the Abarth Punto screams for attention. Add to it a subtle rear spoiler, a large T-Jet style exhaust pipe, Abarth badging all around and very edgy 16″ scorpion alloys; and you have a mean, sinister set of wheels that could be your ticket to the mafiosi.
The sportiness continues inside, with an all black interior. The sporty black seats with contrasting red and yellow stitching (an ode to the legendary Abarth colours) are extremely comfortable even during long distance drive outs. The black dashboard is well finished with chrome accents and the scorpion engraved aluminium pedals are a nice touch. The scorpion badge also adds a dash of glamour to the multi function steering wheel, which has mounted controls for phone, voice commands, mode and volume control. The instrument cluster displays all essential information that you would need – range, temperature, clock, odometer, trip distance, average consumption, instant consumption, average trip speed and travel time. The cockpit is all quite sorted inside, but could do with an upgrade to refresh and keep up with the times.
The Abarth Punto comes in a single variant and is equipped with automatic climate control, bluetooth connectivity and rear AC vents. Under the blistering Delhi summer sun at its peak, the air conditioning unfortunately didn’t quite pass with flying colours. It is noisy and not the most effective that we have encountered. The rear doesn’t cool quickly or well enough, and when set at max, you can’t hear the music or have a conversation without raising the volume. The infotainment system is quite average and at its price point, one would expect a touchscreen system with an integrated camera and parking sensors. Sadly, there is none.
Interior space is decent at the front but legroom at the rear is tight. There is also a dearth of usable storage spaces around the cabin, with just a single cup holder in the front. The rear seats fold 60:40 and along with a boot capacity of 280 litres, makes for a decent flexible space.
The real ability of the Abarth Punto however shines through when you floor the throttle. And then everything else is forgiven. Powered by the 1.4L four cylinder T-Jet petrol engine, it produces 145 bhp power and 212 Nm of torque. No denying that a bit more power would have been even more fun, but behind the wheel the Abarth Punto feels unlike any other hatch. The engine is peppy to say the least – racy and responsive, with an ability to lunge forward in an instant. There is ample power across the rev range, with peak power kicking in at a high 5500 rpm. Sadly, the engine notes are weak and fail to amplify the experience. The engine is mated to a jelly-like 5-speed manual transmission which is a bit dodgy and takes a while getting used to, but manages to get the job done.
There are a few issues with the driving position though. We struggled to get it right, but never quite managed the perfect combination of seat height, steering tilt and pedal reach. The other problem is with the clutch and dead pedal being too close to each other. The left foot keeps hitting the clutch when you want to give it some rest and that can be annoying.
On the handling front, the Abarth Punto certainly lives up to its reputation. It races from 0-100 km/h in 8.8 sec and is the only hatch in India to break the 10 sec barrier. Disc brakes on all four is a huge confidence booster – making the vehicle safer, sharper and giving it the ability to respond at short notice. Other safety features include ABS, EBD and dual airbags (the driver’s side airbag is dual-stage). At 155mm ground clearance, it is low slung by 30mm and boasts of improved aerodynamics. It is excellent to drive on straights, feels solid & safe even at high speeds and attacks corners well. The track tuned suspension is surprisingly not as stiff as one would expect, and the vehicle grips reasonably well around corners. There is a tad bit of understeer due to the increased power, but all in all it is an extremely engaging drive. While this remains an out and out driver’s car, the ride quality remains quite decent. Bumps and speed breakers don’t quite break your back inside the cabin and rear seat comfort is not compromised. However, a smaller steering, a better driving position and a stiffer suspension could have turned this car into a street racer’s delight.
The Abarth Punto is expectedly a gas guzzler and falls short on its efficiency figures. But then, this is about pure unadulterated performance and there is a price for it. We managed just 10.5 km/l over 1200 kms, which is a bit unsettling when half that distance is clocked on highways & expressways.
There is no denying that the Fiat Abarth Punto is built for enthusiasts and enthusiasts only, and if you put driving pleasure above all else, the Abarth Punto is a fantastic option. Combined with an awesome road presence, it is unarguably the the best drive you can get in the sub INR 10.0 lacs segment in India today. Understandably, the slightly dated design, lack of upmarket equipment and low fuel economy would keep most buyers away, but the Abarth Punto was never meant to seduce them. It is for the freaks who want to raid the asphalt and have some serious fun behind the wheel. Everyday. Those who need a little perk up after a hard day at work. And for that, the Abarth Punto has everything going in its favour. Worth it if you have some spare cash lying around.