Industry pundits have been sounding the death knell of the small hatchback van for many years. There's little point in opting for such a pocket-sized vehicle, the argument runs, when there are far more practical load carriers about.
That's especially the case when one compares light commercials based on hatchback cars with the new generation of sub-compact vans about to go on sale in the UK under the Citron Nemo/Peugeot Bipper/Fiat Fiorino banner. Renault's take on the concept a foreshortened version of the new Kangoo Van to be marketed under the Kangoo Van Compact banner is due here in the autumn.
With a 2.3m3 to 2.5m3 or thereabouts cargo box and a 500kg-to-600kg-plus payload capacity, the newcomers take up about as much space on the highway as a Ford Fiesta Van, are just as easy to park, and can carry many more bulky items. So why bother with the latter when you can have one of the former?
Possibly because most small hatchback vans are such fun to drive. Nor are the neighbours likely to raise their eyebrows if you've got one parked on your drive; especially if it's as good-looking as Fiat's new Giugiaro-styled Grande Punto Van.
Under the stylish-looking Grande Punto's bonnet you'll find the always-excellent four-cylinder 16-valve 1.3-litre MultiJet common rail diesel engine producing 75hp at 4,000rpm. Turbocharged and intercooled, and also to be found in Fiorino, it generates maximum torque of 190Nm at 1,750rpm and is married to a five-speed gearbox. CO2 emissions You're looking at 119g/km.
MacPherson struts are at the heart of the independent front suspension along with an ant-roll bar while the rear suspension employs a torsion beam set-up. Our demonstrator's smart 15in alloy wheels were shod with Bridgestone B250 175/65 R15 tyres, a combination that will set you back an extra 425; all prices quoted here exclude VAT.
Ventilated 257mm-diameter disc brakes are fitted at the front while 228mm-diameter drums are installed at the back. ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution are fitted as standard as is electric power steering. Unusually, you can hit a button on the dashboard a system known as Dualdrive so that the steering gives you more assistance when you need to manoeuvre into a tight spot.
Grossing at 1,650kg Grande Punto Van can handle a gross payload of 520kg and will haul a braked trailer grossing at up to 1,000kg.
Access to the 1.0m3 cargo area is by means of a hatch-type rear door complete with a heater for the window (for an extra £20, which seems mean) and a wash/wipe system (another £20, and ditto).
You get four load tie-down points plus a tailored rubber cover to protect the load deck. The sides and wheelboxes are comprehensively defended against minor scrapes and scratches by a mixture of carpet and plastic mouldings. You'll find the spare wheel in a well beneath the cargo bed. While this means you'll have to unload whatever you happen to be carrying if you get a flat tyre, at least it's unlikely to be stolen.
A glazed back door means that the unhealthily curious can get a clear view of your cargo, so it's good to see that a load cover is available for an extra 85. Positioned at waist height, it can be folded back towards the cab end if you're transporting anything bulky. If you forget to lash your cargo down or if it's not the kind of load that can be tied down easily then a half-height steel bulkhead should stop it from ending up in the cab if it slides forwards. The bulkhead is topped off by a mesh grille.
Maximum load length is 1,200mm. Maximum width is 1,034mm narrowing to 970mm between the wheelboxes, while maximum height is 842mm. Rear loading height is 825mm thanks to a pronounced lip at the hatchback end of the load bed. The rear door aperture is 1,041mm wide and 666mm high.
While it's good to see such a roomy and well styled cab interior, oddment storage space is at a premium. There's nowhere convenient to put a flask, a big box of sandwiches or a clipboard, even though all three items accompany many van drivers every day of their working lives.
You get a glovebox, a pocket in each door, a small shelf to the right of the steering column, a couple of trinket trays and that, along with a couple of cup-holders, is your lot. What you also get, however, are nicely sculpted, comfortable seats. The driver's seat is height-adjustable, as is the steering wheel, and the latter plays host to a set of remote controls for the radio/CD player.
Driver and passenger airbags, a trip computer, electric windows, electrically adjustable exterior mirrors and a power point there's another one in the load area close to the door all come as standard. Our demonstrator was equipped with air-conditioning for an extra £500.
Grande Punto Van is an eager performer and a user-friendly gearchange makes it easy for the driver to get the best out of what is a hugely impressive engine. Nor will he or she pay too big a penalty at the pumps. We averaged a frugal 60mpg.
Noise levels are well suppressed and we'd no quarrels with the ride. Sharp handling makes rural deliveries around twisting country roads something to look forward to the steering tightens nicely at speed but we cannot for the life of us understand why Fiat thinks Dualdrive is such a good idea.
Even the feeblest van driver and What Van? employs some real wimps should be able to park the little vehicle in a tight corner without having to resort to switching it on. It's unnecessary and our advice to Fiat would be to delete it and either cut the price of the vehicle or make one or two extra-cost options standard. It could start with the rear window heater and wash/wipe system.
Remote central locking is included in the deal and allows you to unlock the rear hatch separately. If you're in the cab you can hit a button on the dashboard to lock all the doors. You can unlock the back door by hitting another dashboard button, but it won't work when all the doors are locked and the key is out of the ignition. As a consequence anybody who breaks into the cab and presses it in the hope of being able to get at whatever you've got in the back will press in vain.
Nice to see discreet little 'Design Giugiaro' logos next to the rear wheelarches, but it seems a pity that the van's, doubtless lovingly styled, sides aren't protected by rubbing strips as standard, and that the wheelarches aren't protected by plastic mouldings. Seems odd too that although Fiat refers to its new baby as the Grande Punto Van, it's simply badged 'Punto Van'.
While the sides may have been vulnerable, our van's rear was protected by reverse parking sensors for a further £275. Front fog lights should help ensure the sharp end of your van doesn't have any unpleasant encounters in winter weather and cost an additional £125.
Grande Punto Van's a good-looking vehicle, but ours looked better than most thanks to the presence of side skirts (£75) and a rear spoiler (another £75). Body coloured bumpers are a standard feature.
Punto Van is protected by a three-year/100,000-mile warranty with no mileage limit in the first two years. Service intervals are set at 18,000 miles.
Powered by an eager yet remarkably frugal diesel married to a user-friendly gearbox, Fiat's new Grande Punto Van is a joy to drive. It rides and handles well, noise levels are properly suppressed and it looks good into the bargain. The cab's roomy too, and offers a comfortable driving position. On the downside we think the presence of a button you can press to make the steering lighter when you're trying to park is a bit pointless it's light enough anyway and that the van's stylists could have put a bit more thought into providing in-cab storage space. There's a lot more to like than dislike about the little load lugger, however, and if you're looking for a van of this size you should put Grande Punto somewhere near the top of your shopping list.