Fiat Panda has such panache
It's not hard to fall for Fiat's Panda – a small car with huge fun and ability, says Andy Russell.
It's characterful, cheeky and cute – it's so easy to sum up the Fiat Panda.
This great little city car has always been a firm favourite of mine and the new-generation model is only the third since the Panda was first launched in 1980 although there was a short break in production.
You still see thousands still giving sterling service and owners love them. And that's down to Fiat's expertise building small cars that are fun to drive and cheap to run… and the Panda has been one of the best with 6.5 million sold worldwide.
But despite a few nips and tucks and new engines the second-generation Panda – European car of the year in 2004 – was feeling its age and had been overshadowed by all the excitement of Fiat relaunching the 500 with which it shares so much.
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But now it is the Panda's turn to steal the limelight and be the centre of attention with the new model which has grown up – long, wider and taller than the model it replaces – which means more space without losing its city car status.
Sensibly with such a popular little car, the new design is evolutionary rather than revolutionary but the look is softer and more rounded which help make it look even bigger and more grown-up and that's important these days with many motorists looking to down-size to smaller cars with sacrificing too much space or creature comforts.
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Along with small cars, another of Fiat's strengths is developing small engines. The new Panda carries over the 69hp 1.2-litre FIRE petrol and 75hp 1.3-litre turbo diesel but now also gets the 875cc TwinAir twin-cylinder turbo petrol engine first seen in the 500 and being joined by a non-turbo version later this year.
The low-emission, high-economy 85hp TwinAir engine is �1,200 more than the equivalent 1.2-litre petrol engine but �1,000 less than the 1.3-litre diesel and when the 65hp TwinAir comes out that will be only �500 more than the 1.2.
What the extra money for the TwinAir turbo also buys you is a lot of fun. This is a great little engine – hence the reason it was voted 2011 international engine of the year – that has all the hallmarks of the small-capacity Fiat engine. It revs freely and eagerly, boasts surprisingly good punch for safe, simple overtaking if you stir it into life with the slick five-speed gearbox and has a such a rorty report when you wind it up that you can shut your eyes – if you are a passenger – and imagine being in a sports car.
The downside of having only two cylinders is it feels lumpy at low revs so even when the gear-shift indicator was telling me to change up in town driving I hung on and kept the revs up so the engine felt smoother. Even so, with the engine stop-start and the 'eco' mode which limits torque in urban driving I was getting around 55mpg in real-world driving. Get it on the open road and rev it hard and cruise at motorway speeds, which it does remarkably well, and economy dipped to 50mpg but I could live with that for the fun factor.
The Panda is designed as a city car and, given it compact dimensions, rides rough roads scarred by roadworks, potholes and manhole covers really well, taking the sting out of bumps and lumps. Speed things up on the open road and, while the handling is sure-footed and confident with not too much lean in corners despite the tall body, the soft suspension makes progress a bit bouncy especially especially when travelling light.
The bigger body frees up a little more space inside and it will seat four adults with adequate legroom in the back if those up front give up some of their's, and enough headroom to keep your hat on. The Panda comes a standard as a four-seater but three rear seats and headrests are a �100 option with or without the 60/40 split rear seat option but anything more than three children in the back would be a squeeze despite by the new Panda being wider. And two 50/50 split sliding back seats will be available as a �200 option next month.
The boot isn't huge at 225 litres but it's well shaped to make the most of the space. The one-piece rear seat back folded down almost flat on my test car to free up 870 litres but leaves a step up from the boot floor and the painted back of it could easily scratch when loading large items without covering it up.
The cabin has a bright and airy feel with large windows, which also create good all-round visibility – important in a city car – and the attractive fascia is evolutionary with simple, clear dials, easy-to-use switches and audio system and the four rotary knobs for the heating and ventilation system set just in front of the stubby high-level fascia mounted gear lever which falls readily to hand and snicks through the ratios.
The steering wheel adjusts only for height so you sit quite close to the wheel and the high seat leads to an upright driving position but it's comfortable once you get it set up. Storage is good with doorbins, a decent glovebox, a huge recessed compartment above it which has enough of a lip on it so items can't slide out and cubbyholes for drinks and oddments.
The Panda comes in Pop, Easy and Lounge models. All get front and window airbags, electric power steering, electric front windows, central locking and four-speaker radio/CD with MP3 player. Mid-spec Easy gains roof rails, air-conditioning, two more speakers, remote locking and rear head restraints. Step up to Lounge for body-colour electric and heated door mirrors, front fog lights and 15in alloy wheels.
It's hard not to like the Panda and the new one will put an even bigger smile on your face.