Fiat Punto

The new Ford Focus is great – but the 1998 original was the real revolution

The new Ford Focus range is available to order now
IF FORD’S new Focus drives anything like as well as it looks it should be one of this year’s big hits – but if you can save yourself roughly £17,000 if you want to drive a genuine game-changer.

Wander into a showroom with a blue big oval atop and you’ll be able to order the new kid on the block as either a five-door hatch or as an estate perfect for trips to the tip. It’s not only easier on the eye than the old Focus but cheaper too – £2,300 less to be exact, if you go for the entry model – and if you’re feeling flush there’s a plush Vignale model, with leather seats, a fancy radiator grille and electric everything.

But if you want something truly radical you’ll have to walk past the brand-new offering and go back in time. In fact, you’ll have to conveniently forget that there’s still one on every other corner and that you can pick them up for about 25p these days, because the original Ford Focus was a class act. In a way it’s a shame it sold so well because time and familiarity have dulled its impact.

Just think about what else you could’ve bought back in 1998. There was an Astra that handled neatly but looked about as interesting as a tax return, a solidly built but utterly boring Golf, the fantastic yet flaky Fiat Bravo, and a Peugeot 306 that handled beautifully but had a so-so reputation for reliability. Worst of the lot was Ford’s own Escort, which had been quietly getting better with every facelift but ultimately traced its lineage back to an iffy, me-too effort launched eight years earlier. If you wanted a family hatchback your choice was something that did one thing brilliantly or everything with a ‘that’ll do’ attitude.

So when the first Focus rocked up with its all-round independent suspension, its Punto-esque rear headlights and slightly mad angular headlights it’s hardly a surprise everyone sat up and took notice. It had lots of clever little touches – the boot badge that flips sideways to reveal the key slot, for instance – but the big change was just how well it drove. Every Focus I’ve driven over the years has been thoroughly entertaining on a quiet road and that sort of B-road sparkle is something you come to expect from Ford now, but it’s in a different league to the Escort it replaced.

No wonder it went on to become the nation’s best-selling car – and it’s because you still see them everywhere that we’ve all forgotten just how much it moved things on. I’m sure the new car will be a class act too, but it’ll never have the wow factor its (much) older brother did.

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So what if the Fiat Punto is a bit 2005? We already knew that

The Fiat Punto is based on a design originally introduced in 2005.jpg

IT’S THAT time of year again; yep, the one where you encourage an elderly bloke you’ve never met to wobble around on your icy rooftop in the middle of the night, having helped themselves to several glasses of sherry. What could possibly go wrong?

Assuming our red-jacketed chum manages to do all his festive deliveries without slipping and plunging into some poor soul’s back garden there’s a fair chance we’ll have a few presents to open on Christmas morning. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of you unwrapping Star Wars merchandise and shiny smartphones, but I think I can safely predict that even the richest of festive recipients won’t be getting a lovely new Fiat Punto as a present.

That’s largely because – despite Fiat’s efforts to jazz it up over the years – it is a 12-year-old design, meaning it comes from an era when watching Lost and having the Crazy Frog as your ringtone were all the rage. So you’d have to be a brave buyer to go for one over a much newer Fiesta, Corsa or Polo.

We already know that the Punto is looking a bit ancient – which is why Euro NCAP’s decision to put it through a crash test it’s already conducted has left the car world a bit baffled. The safety boffins have made a fairly big deal about the fact it failed to score a single star in its safety test in a world where five is the norm these days. It’s a product that is well past its best-before date, at the expense of the unsuspecting car buyer. Not my words, but Euro NCAP’s.

Anyone who remembers what happened when the Rover 100 picked up a dismal score will know that this might as well be the kiss of death for Italy’s favourite supermini – but it’s worth remembering that in 2005 the same generation of Punto picked up a five-star safety rating. So which is right, and where does it leave all of us who can’t afford to drive brand new cars?

It’s laudable that Euro NCAP wants to raise the bar when it comes to safety but retesting an existing model and giving it a completely different rating runs the risk of rendering all the other old results meaningless. I’m sure all of you out there driving about in Fiat Puntos – or just about any other car over about three years old – must be thrilled. Why not just set a benchmark for all cars to achieve and keep it there, so it’s easy for normal people to understand how much safer cars are getting?

I’m looking forward to driving home for Christmas in my three-star Toyota Avensis. Which is either a car with decent – but not brilliant – safety, or a deathtrap so dangerous I might as well wobble around on an icy rooftop afterwards.