As one of Europe’s most iconic city cars, it’s only fitting that the Fiat Panda is coming to Australia to belatedly expand the Italian brand’s local line-up.
And it’s another Fiat that demonstrates what the company does best, because like most Italian cars it’s loaded with charm.
It may not look like a conventional hatch, but its cheeky styling is dominated by the ‘squircle’, and the upright cabin offers plenty of headroom and practicality.
Only one of three engines has been confirmed for Australia so far, with the 1.2-litre four-cylinder a sure thing and our fingers crossed that the 875cc TwinAir two-cylinder and meatier 1.3-litre diesel four-cylinder make the boat trip, too.
Don’t let the meagre stats fool you: the Panda is no lightweight. Like its Fiat 500 sibling, the Panda scores big on style, especially in a class dominated by staid but dependable Japanese and German rivals.
The ‘squircle’ that makes its appearance in the headlamps, tail-lights and third side-window is echoed inside as well: the door handles, air vents, gear lever – even the dash instruments – all follow this round-edged square design.
The effort that’s gone into the car’s cabin is evident by the smallest of details: a closer look at the dash and door trims reveals ‘Panda’ in raised lettering repeated. Nice.
Style doesn’t come at the expense of substance, though: the doors close with a firm thud, and the seats trimmed in a thick, durable cloth. Only the cheap dials and flimsy stalks on the lower-spec versions let it down. There are three spec levels: Pop, Easy and Lounge.
All come with electric front windows, central locking and four airbags, with the Easy adding roof rails, air-conditioning and an MP3-compatible CD player. The Lounge adds fog lamps and 15-inch alloys on top.
There’s also Fiat’s optional ‘Blue&Me’ infotainment system that will be standard on the 4x4 model, which is also on Fiat Australia’s wish list and may be here in early 2014.
The system offers voice commands and Bluetooth, as well as a responsive, easy-to-use touchscreen TomTom sat-nav. The display can be removed and used on the move, too. You can also download your driving data for later analysis (or download someone else’s...).
While high on design details, the Panda’s character is more than skin deep: it’s a blast to drive. The driving position is high, offering great all-round visibility, and the pedals, gear lever and electric steering all feel evenly weighted. The engine choices all play to different strengths.
The TwinAir, which is also used in the 500, is the smallest in capacity but is the most powerful Panda with 63kW. While this doesn’t sound like much poke, it’s a ball to drive as it needs to be worked hard.
There’s a great thrum from this unit that eggs you to push on and use the 145Nm on tap, making the most of the five-speed manual transmission, which is not the smoothest of boxes, for a controlled yet surprisingly agile, fast and entertaining drive.
You’ll find yourself changing back to first gear around town a little too much, but it’s utterly amusing to row through the gears.
Of course, you won’t achieve the 4.1L/100km claim, even with the smooth start/stop system, but the Panda TwinAir is a joy to pedal and easily capable of stealing cheeky gaps in traffic.
While the TwinAir is not at all sluggish, though, go for the 1.2-litre petrol four-cylinder that, despite less power and torque (51kW and 102Nm), doesn’t feel lethargic as its stats suggest.
The torquey 55kW 1.3-litre diesel, with 190Nm at a low 1500rpm, is the most economical with a 4.2L/100km claim, but the fuel saving is cancelled out by its higher list price. Petrol engines are also smarter for the short, quick trips around town that the Panda’s been designed for.
If you do want to get out of the city, the Panda 4x4 (above) is the pick. It adds the obligatory off-road cladding with chunkier bumpers and a 47mm increase in ground clearance.
It’s offered with the TwinAir petrol or the 1.3-litre diesel, and also has an electronic diff lock and hill holder that work in conjunction with its torque-on-demand all-wheel-drive system. Don’t laugh at the prospect of this tiny off-roader, for the Panda’s short wheelbase means it has greater approach angles than the likes of the Nissan Dualis.
On the road, the Panda rides well but is a little on the firmer side of things. It’s comfortable, but it sends every bump and surface change through the steering wheel. The steering gives good turn-in for a city car, and there’s loads of grip and well controlled body roll. The light weight (with the 1015kg 1.2-litre the lightest) means that its relatively small brakes pull it up strongly, and it’s not a handful when you do need to make full use of them.
Space is yet another Panda strength. While the 225-litre boot trails the luggage areas of the VW Up! and the Toyota Yaris, it’s still reasonable for a city car and the 4x4 version doesn’t lose any space at all. The other drawback is that a split-fold rear seat isn’t standard, nor is the rear-seat sliding mechanism.
Australian models may come with these as standard, and hopefully they do, as it liberates 35 more litres for a 260-litre boot space.
Rear passenger space is excellent across the range too, with a six-foot tall passenger easily fitting comfortably behind a similarly sized driver.
So is the Panda better than a VW Up! or Toyota Yaris? If you want style, practicality and character in spades, nothing can touch the Panda’s quirkiness and cheeky appeal. It’ll also put a smile on your face when you’re in the mood to have some fun, and it’s roominess inside goes with its small dimensions outside to make it an extremely livable city car.
The only thing that may hold the Panda back is its higher list price than its rivals, although it’s still expected to start at less than $20,000. Yet unlike many cars, you do get something more for the extra cash – something much more entertaining and fun.