Thursday, April 27, 2006

T#24: Fiat Punto 1.9 Multijet 130 Sporting v. Skoda Fabia 1.9 TDI PD 130 vRS

Diesel do nicely

Aww, jeez. Hold on a second – I need a couple of minutes to get over the fact that I just wrote that…


There, that should do it. Right, what have we got here then? A pair of diesel engined hothatchamobiles: one well respected seasoned campaigner in the form of the Skoda Fabia vRS; one brand spanking new to market Fiat Grande Punto Sporting. The Fiat edges the Skoda’s £12,375 by coming in at £11,895 (though, as previous mentioned, you do have to fork out extra if you want the Punto to come with any paint…), but is it worth being miserly for a little under £500? Read on to find out.

The Fiat’s the new kid, so it gets to go first. Much has been made of this new Grande Punto model range – named not only for the larger dimensions it has over its predecessor, but also because that car remains in production for the next year – nicking its front end design from Maserati. My initial reaction to photos was, They Wish. I could see the comparison, but was otherwise pretty underwhelmed by my viewing experience; I thought the styling somewhat flaccid and generally kind of lame.

However, this opinion changed the instant I actually clapped eyes on the Sporting. Flaming ‘Caribbean Orange’ paint (one of the cheaper options at £200; and what, I though Fiat were Italian? Surely they could have picked a more culturally homogenous designator than that?) certainly helps, as do the minor additional body appointments afford by its position as speed-merchant top dog of the range. These give the car a very smooth, almost Euro-style modified look, especially if you don’t spend the extra £20 necessary to get the rubbing strips on the side. The Sporting standard 17” alloys finish the look very nicely indeed. A really slick-stylin’ machine.

The interior design is pretty funky as well. The dash is pleasantly swoopy, and I like the gunmetal colour they’ve gone with to interrupt the blackness. The steering wheel has so many buttons you won’t know what to do with half of them – I didn’t; it also has Bluetooth connectivity for handsfree communication via your mobile phone. And it matches the gearknob with its exposed stitching and “sporty” but not especially comfortable ergonomics.

This particular car also had the ‘orange/black’ cloth combination, meaning that the door inserts were almost as bright as the exterior. Those of a more delicate disposition may be pleased to note that a ‘grey/black’ alternative is available. Sports seats are fitted as standard; these have curious clusters of dots on the squab and the seat back – serving no apparent purpose except to add some extra flair, they are perhaps intended to remind you of the Ford GT’s holey buckets…but maybe not. Leather is optional.

The matter of seat accoutrement is a good point to re-introduce the Skoda. Much maligned in owner-forums everywhere, and persevered with much to the head-scratching of the automotive press, the Fabia vRS has its sports seats trimmed substantially in…grey. Not any old grey mind you, but a grey of so light a hue it could virtually be mistaken for white. Hands up who can explain why this isn’t such a bright idea – particularly for the bolsters? To be fair, they do look really smart, with contrasting black inner panels and the vRS logo stitched in the back. But white seats? In a car? It practically defines the automotive for impractical. A colleague who had one of these until very recently took the precaution of Scotch-guarding his – I suggest everyone else does, too.

There is, thankfully, about to be a leather option (though at present no-one seems sure what the cost is). The rest of the interior is as dull but functional as you’d expect a Volkswagen group product to be. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just grey – dark grey this time. The gearknob in the Skoda is a rather more hand-appreciating sporty wedge shape; the steering wheel does without the gizmos.

In the exterior department, the Skoda totally gets its backside walloped. It’s an old-looking design now, which perhaps wouldn’t matter so much if it hadn’t been boring in the first place. In comparison to the rest of the range, the vRS gets bigger wheels, a subtle bodykit – including new bumpers which mean you can’t have factory fitted parking sensors, should you care – foglights and a something the literature refers to as a ‘chrome exhaust end piece’.

The alloys may be big for a Fabia, but they’re still an inch under the size of the Punto’s: a trifling 16” in diameter – and nowhere near as nice to look at. (Though they will be easier to keep clean. Oh, shush – to some people that’s important). On the plus side, for £500 you can have Xenon headlights, which are not an option on the Sporting. But ignoring this inability to dazzle oncoming motorists, the Punto otherwise owns the ballpark as far as the outside appeal of the two cars goes. Eight out of ten baseball hat wearing youths preferred it. Probably.

So, we have here two hot hatches. Both with 1.9 litre direct injection turbocharged diesel engines, both with six-speed gearboxes, both with alloys and body-bits and sporty interiors. They even have the same 130 horsepower, and they’re within £500 of each other on the financial side of things. One looks a great deal better than the other on the outside, however, and of the two, there’s really only one that I’d want to spend my money on…

But before I get to the nitty-gritty of actually driving the things, a quick note on that price difference:

The Fiat comes fully-loaded on the acronym front, and includes such safety precautions in its asking prices as ESP, an electronic stability system – which features ASR/MSR, HBA and something else called ‘Hill-Holder’ (er, what? But presumably all good[1]). The Fabia only comes with traction control and electronic brake-force distribution – which helps you stop in a straight line – in the asking price. The vRS I drove was also fitted with ESP, a good precaution for a press car no doubt, but also a £400 option. The Punto is also three insurance groups lower. This deserves to be taken into account when costing the cars – though for me it makes little difference to the actual outcome.

I drove the Fiat first. It looks so good that you’re already willing it to be brilliant. But, unfortunately, it’s like they took a tea break after making it look tasty and forgot to come back and finish the rest of it. Whatever happened to involvement? At no point did it seem likely that I was about to chuck it off the road, so the chassis obviously holds on very well, you just don’t get any tactile reassurance – at all. The steering is so light that on a number of occasions I thought I’d left it in city mode by mistake – even though it’s supposed to cut-out above 19mph. This push-button function ups the assistance to enable easy manoeuvring at low speeds, but the Punto really doesn’t act like it needs it. The issue is compounded by an overly springy clutch pedal that’s so anti-positive someone should be sending out for Valium. I stalled this car on a number of occasions – do you know how difficult that should be in a turbo-diesel?

Once it’s actually moving, and you get over the unnerving lack of feel, the Sporting does go pretty well. The quoted 0-62mph time of 9.5 seconds seems about right, though it can feel a bit gutless unless you’re vigorous with the gearbox. This is nice enough to use, mechanically speaking, but the lifting collar that prevents you from accidentally sticking in reverse stops the knob from being properly comfortable. The steering wheel rim is heavily contoured, but my natural hand position found me accidentally activating the Bluetooth – which wouldn’t be so bad except this cuts out the stereo. The driver’s seat, while grippy, for some reason has this ridge that ran right across my upper back, making the car an uncomfortable long term companion. And the ride – squidgy in the corners, which doesn’t exactly add to confidence, yet strangely fidgety and harsh on motorways and b-roads; it’s very difficult to figure out what Fiat was trying to achieve. The driving experience just lets the Sporting down so badly. The brakes are pretty good, though.

The Skoda, on the other hand, is one of those cars you get into and – like its bigger cousin, the Golf GTi – immediately you feel comfortable. I don’t just mean the driver’s seat – though this is better than in the Fiat – but in terms of driving confidence. The steering is much more substantially weighted and far more communicative. The ride is harder, but the body control better; even though the Fabia seems to roll more in the bends, the manner in which this occurs is predictable and natural feeling in comparison to the activities of the Fiat. The clutch works like a clutch should, and the gearbox is a no problem tool.

The one performance statistic that separates these cars is the torque they produce – it’s what a turbo diesel is good at, and the vRS makes more of it. The difference on paper looks slight, 206lb ft against 229, and they post identical 0-62mph times in spite of it. But out on the road the Skoda feels far pokier, pulling much harder towards its redline, noticeably quicker on motorway sliproads, less inviting of a downshift. You can just surf on this wave of torque to get the job done.

You make fine, swift progress in this car – and it’s great fun while you’re doing it. The only thing missing in comparison to most petrol hot hatches is the rev range and the exhaust note (not that either of these derv-drinkers sounded particularly tractor-like). It’s a bit of a thug, with a rawer driving experience than the Fiat – you’re much more likely to provoke torque-steer in the Skoda – but I like that, somehow it exudes honesty. Much preferable to the Punto’s over-assisted synthetic gloss, barely glazing the roughness underneath.

The brakes aren’t quite as good as the Sporting’s, but the pedals are worth mentioning for another reason: well-spaced and with the corners cut off at the bottom you can even left-foot brake. Transferring from left to right is aided by the spacing and the missing corners means both feet can be on the middle pedal at once. Not sure the engine-management appreciates this much though, as when I tried covering the brake with my left and raising the revs with my right – to see if I could avoid downshifting during choppy motorway traffic – the turbo seemed to cut out. Bah, computers know best, eh.

Something else worth bearing in mind is that when buying the Skoda you’re buying a Volkswagen. (For the uninitiated, the Fabia is essentially an ugly Polo.) This means so called VW build quality – no, don’t let that put you off, the Czechs seem to make this work better than the Germans. Let me put it another way, in comparison to the Fiat, the Skoda really is a bank vault…

And lest you think I’m exaggerating, I shall give you some examples. Press car = hard life, yes? Just so, but that surely doesn’t excuse the number of stone chips despoiling the Sporting’s otherwise pretty nose. The paint on this thing is thin. Removing the towing-eye cover (to attach a camera, ye of little faith) removed the paint attached to it, giving a whole new meaning to the term “orange peel”, and the paint on the plastics was a subtly different shade to the paint on the bodywork. What’s more, the shutline on the bonnet was considerably skewed and the interior trim was falling off – in several places. The “flimsy Fiat” is alive and well.

More practicality issues? I’ve got them. Fiat: three doors; Skoda: five. Need to carry people in the back on a regular basis? That’s quite a plus. The Punto also has some pretty severe blindspot problems. The window profile on the side narrows considerably towards the rear, culminating in a mahoosive c-pillar. The a-pillars are also inhibiting when placing the car as they widen towards the base, where they’re split by more glasswork – but this is useless for anything other than decoration, you certainly don’t see out of it. Slightly more concerned about environmental matters? The Fabia makes more power but creates less pollution and has better official fuel consumption figures. The Skoda also has a better stereo – if you care about that sort of thing.

Come on, you can do it – you can get over the Fiat’s good looks. Because that, the level of standard kit, and its insurance group, are really all it’s got going for it. Don’t get me wrong, it is a stunning looking hatchback – especially in that orange – and I wouldn’t disrespect anyone for buying one on that basis. But the Fabia is the better vehicle. It’s better screwed together, better to drive, more powerful, more practical, more comfortable and more environmentally friendly. I’m not sure what else I can add. It’s a genuinely great car, not just a comparison winner – does that help?

Style Over Substance versus Plain Jane With Attitude. Attitude does it for me, every time.

Fiat Punto 1.9 Multijet 130 Sporting: on the road price £11,895

CO2 EMISSIONS: 154g/km
PERFORMANCE: 0-60mph 9.5s / Max Speed 124mph
FUEL CONSUMPTION: (combined) 48.7mpg

Skoda Fabia 1.9 TDI PD 130 vRS: on the road price £12,375

CO2 EMISSIONS: 138g/km
PERFORMANCE: 0-60mph 9.5s / Max Speed 128mph
FUEL CONSUMPTION: (combined) 52.3mpg


T#23: Hyundai Santa Fe CDX 2.7 V6 Automatic [internal]

T#22: Mk V Volkswagen Golf GTi [internal]

T#21: Honda Jazz 1.4 CVT Sport [internal]

Pictures are Skoda and Fiat press shots.

[1] No, I do actually know what they mean. ASR/MSR is Fiat’s version of traction control, which prevents the wheels for spinning when the lead foot to road grip balance is compromised. More interesting – sort of – is HBA, which stands for Hydraulic Brake Assist, and helps increase braking pressure in emergency situations. The Hill-Holder does away with the need for handbrake use when stopping and starting on hills. And I thought that something else did that…clutch control.


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