Fiat’s Brazilian unit chose one of the most popular State of Bahia beaches, 45 miles from the capital Salvador, to host a 300-journalist Latin American markets press conference for the redesigned Uno.

This is the first full re-work of a car first launched in the early 1980s which, bar some updated lights, grille and bumpers and newer engines and dashboards,  has stayed in production in Brazil – now called the Uno Mille – and still has several more years to run. Brazil also developed van and pickup truck variants which were widely exported in both left- and right-hand drive.

Now Fiat has designated the new generation Uno its key model in its fight for car and light commercial market leadership here in Brazil.

The new model also also paves the way to a Panda redesign due out soon, which will look quite similar. The cars had been developed side by side until 2009 but the sales challenges sparked by the international financial crisis dating from 2008 spurred the Brazilian subsidiary to bring its new car to market faster than the European operation.

The new Uno will be sold alongside the current Uno Mille, produced here since 1984, which will be phased out by 31 December, 2013 as it will not meet planned new local laws covering passive safety.

Investment to develop new Uno totalled US$600m but that included developing the next Palio due in 2011.

Fiat expects to sell at least 10,000 new Unos monthly in Brazil alone and to export up to 2,000 units more as production ramps up.

The new car is good but will jeopardise, perhaps quite substantially, sales of the current Palio and some versions of the Mille. Which may be why Fiat cut $350 off the sticker prices of the two older models.

The five door, entry-level Uno Vivace with one-litre ‘popular car’ engine will sell for $15,200. The Attractive, with 1.4-litre power, goes for $17,300. Way versions, with ‘adventurer appeal’ and higher profile tyres, will retail for $15,800 and $17,700, respectively. Three door versions, due in July will cost about $1,000 less.

Fiat expects the ’round square’ styling to appeal specially to young buyers. The new Uno looks similar to 2003’s second generation Panda, a model never sold here, but is larger.

The three small off-centre squares on the nose hark back to the front grille of the Giugiaro-designed first generation Panda of 1980 and the Ritmo (Strada) as well. On the new model they are for show only, not airflow.

The new Uno sits on a modified Palio platform with almost the same wheelbase (93.7in), front track just 0.4in wider, yet with a generous 1.57in increase rear track to 55.9in.

Comparing to the Uno Mille, the new model is 1.97in taller (58.6 in.) and 3.15in longer (148.4in.). Despite the greater length, the 9.9cu ft boot is beaten by the 10.2cu ft of the veteran, but it regains that 0.3 cu ft if the rear seatback is positioned more upright.

Despite the modest dimensional boost, interior roominess has been improved considerably. Many interior parts such as controls, roof console, air vents and the 500-inspired steering wheel are borrowed from other Fiat models.

The one- and 1.4-litre engines, now called ‘Evo’, have improved average fuel consumption of 3% and 5%, respectively. The smaller engine is more powerful (72/74 bhp, petrol/ethanol) compared with the Mille unit but not the Palio’s. The larger engine is more powerful on ethanol only (83/87 bhp). Performance wise, the new Uno’s higher weight (145 lb+) cancels out the engine gains.

Driveability is a highlight: smoother than the Uno but firmer riding than the Palio.