Italy makes some of the most beautiful, stylish and desirable objects in the world: Prada suits, Alessi kettles, Ferrari supercars, B&B Italia furniture and Gucci shoes – and that's not the half of it. But lately, this list hasn't included Fiats. Fiat makes small, economical and practical cars – but of indifferent visual appeal. Amazing, really, that an industrial colossus so central to Italy should fail to take advantage of one of its country's greatest assets – design flair.
But this brand-new, third generation Punto supermini bucks the trend, Fiat realising that it has to vest its cars with some visual brio if buyers are to consider their other merits. So the nose of the new car is reminiscent of a Maserati's – a visual link that Fiat, which owns Maserati, is more than happy to see made – while the clean, subtly curvaceous lines of the rest of its bodywork are almost sexy. And that's rare among this breed.
Inside, the dashboard is lightened by an appealing expanse of metallised plastic trim that matches the seat material. This may sound naff but, believe us, it's not. Instead, it lightens the interior and makes the dashboard a more interesting construction to behold. This dash décor comes in orange, blue, sand or grey, so there are hues to suit those after something more subdued. The seat trim, in a style reminiscent of an upmarket pair of trainers, is very inviting too, making this a supermini that you want to sit in.
You won't be short of room when you do, either, because this new Punto is big. True, some of its length is dedicated to a long nose intended to cushion hapless pedestrians in the event of a collision, but the cabin provides ample room for four, and a decent boot, to boot.
All of which makes the Punto feel like a grown-up car, one in which long journeys can be contemplated with relish. It's comfortable, quiet and when equipped with the 1.4 petrol engine that's expected to be the best-seller here, a relaxing motorway cruiser. Peace of mind is further bolstered by the fact that this Punto has scored the full five stars in the euro-NCAP crash test.
The 1.4 motor is technically quite a sophisticated device, efforts to reduce its internal friction and improve its fuel efficiency providing a real chance of achieving well over 40mpg. It's a reasonably brisk performer and, better still, makes the vaguely sporting sounds that you'd hope for from an Italian engine. Couple this with decent back-road agility and around-town wieldiness – improved by power steering that you can lighten up at the press of a button – and you have one very complete supermini.
Mechanically and functionally, it is no revolution and does not put Fiat quite at the head of the supermini pack. But it's well-finished, good-looking and good to be in – distinctively Italian qualities that are rarely found in this class.
Price (est) £10,000 (Fiat Punto 1.4 Dynamic 3-door)
Max power 76 bhp
Max torque 85 lb ft
Max speed 124 mph
0-62 mph 102 mph
Fuel consumption 46.3 mpg
CO2 emissions 145 g/km
Ford Fiesta 1.4 Zetec £9,895
Capable and now upgraded with a freshened interior, but lacks the Fiat's design charisma.
Honda Jazz 1.4i DSI SE £10,700
Good all-rounder, more versatile, with a clever seat system, but costlier and less stylish.