Fiat Punto Lounge Duologic First Drive
Other than the five-speed manual entry-level Pop, the Punto gets Fiat’s odd Dualogic transmission. The difference is considerable, and not necessarily for the better, says Paul Murrell.
After driving the new Fiat Punto Pop manual around Sydney, we repeated the exercise in Melbourne in the top-of-the-line Lounge, this time fitted with Fiat’s Dualogic clutchless automatic (optional on the Pop, standard on both the Easy and Lounge).
Not surprisingly, most of what we discovered in the Pop applies equally to the Lounge. The larger wheels (16-inch Sportline alloys with seven spokes) certainly don’t do the ride any favours. The noise and choppy ride identified in the Pop are more evident with the larger wheels and lower profile tyres, although it must be admitted, they look great, and for most buyers, that will be the defining factor.
As with the Sydney drive, we were able to sample the Lounge on a variety of different surfaces and road conditions, including some freeway driving, suburban stop/start, rural roads and even some seriously chopped up bitumen. The Fiat handled them all more than adequately.
The Lounge costs quite a bit more than the Pop, and gets all the good gear to make it look a lot more classy. In addition to the larger wheels, there’s a sports body kit with side skirts and rear spoiler, adaptive front fog lights with cornering function, aluminium external mirror caps and chrome exhaust tip to dress up the exterior. Inside, you get dual-zone automatic climate control (although we struggled to get much cold air blowing out at face level), leather seats with electric lumbar adjustment, electrochromatic interior rear vision mirror, ambient lighting and darkened privacy glass. I suppose that’s an acceptable increase in features for the additional $5800 plus the on road costs that are included in the Pop’s drive away price. Add in the three available options of dual pane sunroof ($1500), heated front seats ($500) and TomTom sat nav ($595) and you’re looking at more than $25,000 on road.
Of course, the biggest single difference between the Pop and the other two models is the transmission. Australians are showing an increasing preference for self-shifters and in this category, it’s even more important because many new drivers are getting licences that do not permit them to drive manual cars (how things have changed).
For the Punto, Fiat don’t offer a true automatic transmission. Instead, the Easy and Lounge (and optional on the Pop for $1500) is a five-speed robotised semi-automatic transmission they call Dualogic.
The last time we experienced this transmission was on the Fiat 500 TwinAir 0.9-litre model. It wasn’t an experience we were keen to repeat. We’re pleased to report that the Dualogic works better with the 1.4-litre engine in the Punto, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. Driving the Punto in full auto mode (in other words, letting the gearbox change up and down of its own accord) can be very frustrating. It seems permanently confused and even on a lightish throttle there is a cavernous pause between ratios and a seriously annoying jolt when the next ratio is engaged. At certain speeds, the transmission seems simply unable to decide the most suitable ratio. Taking slow corners, the ‘box stayed in second gear, rather than changing down to the more suitable first, so take-off was hesitant and slow.
Changing to semi-auto mode by pushing the gear lever to the left (pushing it again, re-engages full auto – more on that later) initially seems not to greatly improve things. The pause between engaging gear when you push the lever forward or back at any throttle setting is still glacial and the suddenness of engagement when it finally slots in off-putting. After a few kilometres of trial and error, it became clear that easing off the throttle at the moment of selecting a different ratio (particularly when changing up) smoothed this whole operation considerably. Magically, the Dualogic became as smooth and seamless as any fully automatic ‘change. The only problem was a tendency to unintentionally push the lever left when changing gears, and that inevitably re-engaged full auto mode just when you didn’t want it (not that I ever wanted it).
The only problem here is that most drivers simply will not change their driving style to suit. Automatic drivers aren’t as engaged or enthusiastic as manual drivers; many of them are inexperienced or young. Overwhelmingly, they will drive the Dualogic Fiat like the autos they are used to, and that will be a disappointment to them.
PRACTICAL MOTORING SAYS
There’s a lot to like with the new Fiat Punto and it’s a clear indication that the Europeans are fighting back strongly against the dominance of the Japanese and more lately Koreans. But the manual gearbox is only available in the entry-level Punto Pop, and the Dualogic in the other two models will certainly limit the appeal to the very market most likely to aspire to the cute little Italian.