The fate of the Punto epitomised FIAT’s decline into irrelevance.
For the millennials amongst DTW’s readership, it must be barely conceivable that FIAT was once the largest manufacturer of passenger cars in Europe, an automotive powerhouse with a full range that stretched from the diminutive 126 runabout to the luxury 130 saloon, between which extremes were a multiplicity of saloon, estate, hatchback, coupé and convertible models. FIAT’s market presence was strongest at the smaller end of this spectrum and its 127 model of 1971 was the definitive modern supermini, or at least it became so when, a year after launch, it received the hatchback it was so clearly destined to have.
All the elements were there: a transverse engine with end-on gearbox driving the front wheels, making for a compact powertrain that allowed passenger space to be maximised. At around 3.6 metres in length, it was about half a metre longer than Alec Issigonis’s packaging marvel, the original 1959 Mini, but it put that extra length to good use, providing more than tolerable accommodation for four adults to travel a good distance, something that was beyond the scope of the BMC car. The 127 was voted European Car of the Year in 1972.
With an Italian(1) production life of twelve years, the 127 was deservedly highly successful, although FIAT defaced it horribly with a clumsy second facelift in 1981. Thankfully, a replacement was by then little over a year away. The 127 was looking rather decrepit by the end of its life, but FIAT came roaring back with the 1983 Uno, a very smart and entirely contemporary looking supermini designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro at Italdesign. The Uno was just 50mm (2”) longer than the 127, but a similar increase in height and a much more upright tailgate gave it significantly more space for passengers and their luggage. The Uno was voted European Car of the Year in 1984.
Like its predecessor, the Uno remained in production in Italy(2) for a dozen years, during which time it received one significant facelift, which slightly undermined the purity of the original design, but not seriously so. The Uno, although now facing greater competition from other automakers who had entered the market segment, remained a strong seller throughout its life.
The Uno’s replacement was the 1993(3) Punto. The change of moniker was a surprise, given the equity that had been accumulated in the Uno name. Presumably, this was driven by the need to distinguish the new model clearly from its predecessor, which remained in production and on sale in overseas markets. Again designed by Giugiaro(4), the Punto adopted the 1990s fashion for more curvaceous, organic styling, albeit constrained somewhat by the supermini envelope. It was a significant 115mm (4½”) longer(5) than its predecessor and increased in height by 45mm (1¾”) maintaining the proportions and stance of the Uno.
Like both its predecessors, the Punto was voted European Car of the Year in 1995, narrowly defeating another supermini, the Volkswagen Polo Mk3, into second place. The competition was intensifying but the Punto was still amongst the class-leaders. It remained on the market for six years without significant alteration before being replaced by a second-generation model in 1999.
The new Punto was something of a surprise to behold. Although only marginally bigger than its predecessor, to the extent that it could have been a heavy re-skin (which it wasn’t), Giugiaro’s smooth curves were replaced by something more akin to austere and functional industrial product design. Its predecessor’s glazed third light on five-door models was deleted in favour of a broad C-pillar. The door mirror mounting was left in body-colour, rather than being covered by a black plastic sail panel. Both changes smacked of cost-cutting.
Under the skin, there was further evidence of a hunt for savings. The outgoing model’s independent trailing-arm rear suspension was replaced by a simpler and cheaper torsion beam set-up, which was, in fairness to FIAT, the supermini class norm. The Punto continued to sell strongly, and total production passed the five-million mark in 2003.
In the same year, FIAT revised the Punto to give it a much more assertive face, with large dual headlamp units and, for the first time on any Punto, a conventional front grille(6). The high-level taillights, another Punto signature, were extended onto the tailgate. To this author’s eyes, the rather blingy new front-end sat somewhat uncomfortably with the design’s otherwise rather austere appearance.
Just two years later, as Italian Punto production passed the six-million mark, the Punto was joined by a new and larger third-generation model, called Grande Punto. The new supermini marked a return to Giugiaro for its styling, and a return to form for FIAT as it was a notably handsome design, with its pronounced wedge shape and swept back ‘fingernail’ headlamps. The Grande Punto was an all-new design and shared its platform with the 2006 Opel / Vauxhall Corsa D.
Both Punto and Grande Punto remained in production alongside each other for five years. With the imminent termination of the second-generation Punto, FIAT took the opportunity to facelift and rename the Grande Punto in 2009. Now called the Punto Evo, it was most easily recognised by the repositioning of the front grille and the addition of a broad chrome strip across its nose with the FIAT badge at its centre. This was meant to create a familial resemblance to the 500, launched in 2007 and already highly successful, but it just looked awkward on the Punto. Some wag remarked that it resembled the moustache of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s fictional Belgian detective.
Thankfully, FIAT had a change of heart after little over two years and facelifted the Punto again, returning its front end to something that resembled the 2005 original so closely that only an automotive-obsessive with too much time on their hands(7) would be able to tell the difference between the two. Separate turn indicators below the headlamps is the easiest recognition point for the facelifted car, which was neither ‘Grande’ nor ‘Evo’ but simply Punto, FIAT seeing the error it’s ways in this regard also. The existing engine line-up was augmented with the lusty Twin-air unit from the 500, a turbocharged twin-cylinder engine which produced highly impressive fuel economy figures in official WLTP tests but was rather less impressive in real-world driving conditions.
From this point onward there were no significant alterations or improvements. From 2015, the Punto was only available in Europe in five-door form, the three-door going the way of many competitors’ superminis. The Twin-air and diesel engines were dropped, leaving potential buyers a choice of just two petrol engines and two trim levels.
The Punto remained in production in Europe until 2018, a total run of thirteen years, which was exceptionally long for a car in its market segment, especially in the absence of any major updates. What had been a thoroughly competent and competitive car in 2005 was pretty outdated by 2018. In the end, it simply died from the neglect of its maker and indifference bred from over-familiarity for potential customers. Unforgivably, FIAT had no replacement in development and simply abandoned the mainstream B-segment(8) altogether, just as it had done when its larger models had come to the end of their production lives. The current FIAT Panda, already on the market for over a decade with no replacement in sight, seems to be heading for the same fate.
The story of FIAT’s decline can be told most strikingly in the following table, charting the Punto’s European sales(9) over the past quarter of a century:
Who is responsible for this disaster? The late Sergio Marchionne, who was appointed CEO of FIAT S.p.A. in 2004 and was the driving force behind the 2014 FIAT-Chrysler merger that formed FCA, must bear much of the blame. Marchionne, who remained at the FCA helm until his untimely death in 2018, began his professional career as a tax specialist at the accounting firm, Deloitte & Touche. Always a ‘numbers’ rather than a ‘car’ man, he was much more comfortable with financial rather than mechanical engineering and that was his prime, some would say sole, focus at FCA. In fairness to Marchionne, however, the rot had set in at FIAT long before his arrival: its model range and European market share had been in retreat for some time, from 9.91%(9) in 1990 to 5.48% in 2003.
Merging two struggling and heavily indebted automakers in an attempt to make one even bigger company that was viable and sustainable was always going to be a big ask in a market clogged with overcapacity. Marchionne certainly strengthened the combined balance sheet and significantly reduced FCA’s debt burden, but he did so by dramatically scaling back on new product development. The results of this were seen on both sides of the Atlantic: Chrysler, once a full-line automaker, is now reduced to just two models, the Pacifica minivan and 300C sedan, while Dodge has only the Charger sedan, Challenger coupé and Durango SUV to sustain it. With the exception of the Pacifica, all of these models are now over a decade old.
The gradual but inexorable decline of FCA made it an easy target for a takeover by PSA, announced in late 2019 but not finalised until January 2021. What hope there might be for any revival of FIAT under Stellantis remains to be seen but, with sixteen brands to manage in its portfolio and FIAT bringing nothing distinctive to the table other than the 500, the odds are not good. FIAT’s European market share in 2021 was 3.98% and the bulk of its sales were of the 500 model. This raises the possibility that ‘500’ may be spun off as a sub-brand(10), but the chances of there still being FIAT-branded passenger cars on the European market by the middle of this decade seem vanishingly small(11).
(1) Overseas production of the 127 would continue until 1996 in Argentina.
(2) Overseas production of the Uno would continue until 2014, this time in Brazil.
(3) Italian production of the Uno and Punto continued simultaneously between 1993 and 1995.
(4) Giugiaro’s Punto submission was actually a design rejected by Renault for the 1990 Clio supermini.
(5) This was in line with the gradual growth in size of average supermini dimensions.
(6) The first and pre-facelift second-generation Punto featured an engine air intake incorporated into the lower front bumper moulding.
(7) Yes, that would be your author.
(8) The long-lived FIAT 500 is, broadly speaking, a B-segment car but its retro-chic looks and limited accommodation for passengers and their luggage prevents it being a mainstream competitor in this market segment, at least in the view of this author.
(9) Sales and market share data from www.carsalesbase.com.
(10) The badging on the 500e, where ‘500’ has replaced the FIAT badge at the front, suggests that this is a real possibility.
(11) Unless FIAT was repositioned as a ‘value’ competitor to Dacia, aimed primarily at developing markets, as appears to be the case with the current C-segment Tipo / Egea hatchback, saloon and estate. This seems to be the only possibility for its continued existence.