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These are testing times. It was a beautiful, crisp morning and Fiat India had filled the tank of a Magnesio Grey Punto Evo 90 HP for us. The hour had arrived to slot the refreshed Italian hatch into first and head on down the highway to a little slice of heaven, the mountain town of Kodaikanal, home to a few but also on India's southern tourist trail.
Kodai is not the place it was when we were growing up, with Dominos and Dolphin's Nose now competing for top stop. But it's still a nice place to experience and spend some quality downtime, especially when one respects the general mountain energy.
The story continues in the next slide.
Pan back to Koramangala, Bangalore. We rolled out of third block on all fours and soon turned on to NH 7, wondering what the 90 horses of the Punto would translate to on close to 400 kilometres of dual carriageway. It took a little bit of work to find a good driving position, but eventually the Evo was found to be accommodating for even a six-feet-tall frame, at least in front. Once seating and caffeine kicks were sorted over brekky near Krishnagiri, it was time for some good ol' mile munching.
A good pedal setup is elemental to a manual car's capabilities on the road, and the Italian hatchback falls a little short here. The clutch pedal interferes when you rest your foot on the dead pedal, because the clutch travel is a bit too long. Unfortunate for a car that claims to be an enthusiast's machine. But if you look past this shortcoming, things begin looking up.
It's not how much power you have, it's how much you can use, wisely say James-a-May. Passing vehicles of all sorts is remarkably easy in the Punto Evo, since every last newton-metre of the hatch's strong 209 Nm torque output can be pressed into use on the open road. Glancing at the speedo once, the needle was at 120 km/h in the fifth of the available five speeds, with the engine spinning at 3000 rpm, bang in the meat of the powerband.
But the road was getting crowded, and an unregistered Datsun decided to have a Go for no apparent reason, so best back off. Highway jerks aside, all you need to do is dab the throttle and the car surges forward with impressive urgency, with overtaking being a breeze. More importantly, quick and safe. Drop down to fourth between 80-90 km/h if you want that wonderful feeling of strong torque again. Be warned though, that the Mutijet mill is not high-revving and the tachometer's redline is strangely not marked on the dial, so don't venture too far over 4000 revs or you'll risk engine damage.
Passing trucks loaded with tractors and even a poor elephant did not get the car twitching one bit. The new Punto feels absolutely stable at speed, and the 16-inch Apollo rubber grips the surface of the road exceedingly well, absorbing unevenness with no fuss at all. Even mid-corner swells and bumps don't give you hair raising moments, possibly attributed in some to this variant tipping the scales at around 1.2 tons.
We were nearing the foothills and the landscape was changing, with the outline of the Palani Hills in the distance steadily growing in stature. Around a 100 kilometres to go, half of which would be in the twisties. The Evo had excelled in our books on the highway, at least mechanically. That's because we had discovered earlier that the audio system was malfunctioning. And that too before Dire Straits' The Bug had run its course. It developed a mind of its own and began cutting off every time the horn was used. The system wouldn't read folders when it played Mp3s either-'tis rather annoying to have to go through gigabytes of tunes one by one.
We got off NH 7 at around three in the afternoon, and before we knew it, the hills were alive with the sound of the slightly clattery 1.3-litre diesel engine. The car displayed ample power climbing up to the 7,000 feet elevation of Kodaikanal, initially at least. Because while the going is good in second or third gear if you've got momentum on your side, the moment you have to slow down to a crawl behind a truck or bus inching up, it necessitates shifting into first to keep the motor on the boil.
Stay in second in this situation and you'll feel you should never signed away your money for one of these. The Kodai ghat section is quite steeply inclined with a lot of sharp twists, so if you don't downshift, you've got no power at all to climb till the engine reaches 2000 revs. And by that time, the opportunity to pass has usually er, passed. Useable power. It was here we found the shifter uncomfortable too, because despite being leather wrapped, it bites into your fingers because it is hard and not shaped right. The Ford Figo shifter, that's right. However, the Punto makes up for these downsides around the corners. The roll was nicely controlled all the way up and the steering instantaneous with a decently weighted feel.
Kodaikanal doesn't always have smooth roads, the quality is quite seasonal. But we were lucky to have some recently laid areas with black-as-night surfaces. However, on the rough stuff that we eventually did encounter, the suspension worked well to absorb all dips and bumps, but what spoiled the nicety was that a couple of tiny squeaks were emanating from somewhere inside the cabin. That shouldn't happen in a car with only around 5,000 on the clock.
So what about the all-important exterior redesign. Does it work? We think it does, rather well. The car's best angle is the front three quarters, because it shows off the extensively redesigned nose that no doubt looks very different to the old Punto. The subtle sportiness of the previous generation is certainly gone now, the new one is bolder and its gaping upper and lower grilles lined with all that chrome will turn heads. Those fog lamp chrome surrounds are very original, but we think Fiat should offer an piano black option for them. It suited the interiors, it will look good outside too. Anyway, times had to change, but the car has carved out its own identity, and that's important.
The side profile remains almost the same as the previous Punto, but the nose has been lifted a bit, and the car's best-in-class 195 mm ground clearance and big wheels mean the new Punto is certainly not out there to um, maintain a low profile. Why should it, it's a car for India and needs to be capable of surviving unmarked speedbreaker hits. It's still an interesting shape to look at, though.
From the rear, the new LED lamps look great, especially when viewed from a slight distance.The other fresh and rather prominent feature is the new chrome bar in the bottom of the rear bumper which extends around the now dug out lamp recesses. Again, this (and the door handles) could be offered in piano black or glossy black as an option along with chrome.
To hint at what we mean, we've edited the chrome finish of the grille and fog lamp surround in the adjoining image. We felt dull black wouldn't because then those new features may not reveal themselves as much, and we're sure Fiat and its clientele would like these new styling details to stand out. But yes, Indian customers could do with more customisation options for their cars.
The all-black interior suits the intended sporty character of the car, with some premium soft-feel cladding that's impressive to see in a car in this segment. The black seats feature good-looking grey stitching and will remain comfortable even on a long road trip like this one. The steering wheel is one of the best parts of the new Punto–it feels great to grip and swells in the right places. Also, the integrated controls for the audio system and phone connect are within easy reach and don't get pressed accidentally.
The piano black detailing on the central console looks really good, and gives the Punto Evo one of the better looking cabins in the segment. Legroom in the rear is decent, but with the front seats pushed back for taller drivers, it can become a trifle cramped. But then, this is a small car at the end of the day, and you can't really expect too much more space. Because the Punto would need to look like a Maruti Wagon R then, and we certainly don't want that.
Night had fallen, and this brought out two basic safety concerns in the car, one more important than the other. The lesser problem was the main beam indicator on the instrument console being a touch too bright, so it was slightly distracting. A softer blue is required for the icon. But the second, more critical problem was that if you flash your high beam while the headlights are on, it's possible to accidentally flick off the headlights since the rotary switch for the lights clicks through its settings too easily. A pity, since the Punto is actually one of the safer small cars to drive, with features like dual front airbags and the ABS/EBD tag team.
One tends to sleep very well in Kodaikanal under a warm blanket, daresay the cold ones before the hot chapatis helped the cause. We rose early in the hope of one the gorgeous sunrises Kodi locals are so lucky to encounter almost at will, but luck handed us mist instead. Oh well, city folk don't complain about that. A few pictures and a bite later, and it was quickly time to make tracks back towards the grinding stone. But there was still a long drive to look forward to, and it was decided there'd be fewer stops this time.
I thought I had imagined an inconsistent shift quality for the gearbox earlier, but on the way down this was confirmed. The gears do sometimes get grabby, which is unfortunate since this is supposedly a car for driving enthusiasts, and one of the basic prerequisites is good shifting. But it was good to see that the brakes held up nicely down the ghats, and there was enough bite to retard momentum safely.
With the hills fading fast behind now, it was nice that the last spell with the car would be where it felt most comfortable, on the open road. Just so we could part ways well, it almost seemed. The 470-kilometre return journey took a little more six and a half hours to complete, the sparsely-trafficked Monday road and the generally great surface safely allowing this. These favourable driving conditions saw us return the car to Fiat India with a third of the tank left, after filling up in Kodaikanal, which roughly worked out to an impressive 16 kpl. That might sound a tad low, but keep in mind that our average speed was around 70 km/h.
The final take on the Fiat Punto Evo 90 HP? With the new Hyundai i20 Elite around, this becomes a slightly tough call. The Evo does offer updated styling that will grow on you, but the i20 is all new, and better looking. The Evo offers impressive torque, but the i20 has more. And although the interiors are well-equipped and a nice place to be, it is are no patch for the new Korean hatch. But's that's all secondary. What the new Punto's got is flair, like only something Italian can possess. Bottles get squashed because there's nowhere to fit them, but you forgive that because the exterior is smack and the interior is black. You don't mind having to work the engine in the ghats, because it's so good around the corners. While certain few things need to be sorted out, the new Evo is still the style statement it needed to be for its fans, and that's excellent news.