Curious pricing but Fiat's third city car offering in Australia has a charming personality and is enjoyable to drive.
The Fiat Panda has taken more than three decades to get to Australia, but now it’s here it’s time to quickly get used to the word ‘squircle’.
You don’t need a PhD in mathematical shapes to appreciate this is a cross between a square and a circle, though you probably have to be Italian to apply it so liberally to the design of a car.
The outgoing Mini’s interior has its fair share of round things, but squircles dominate the Fiat Panda like a geometric obsession never quite seen before.
You’ll be relieved to hear, and see, that the Panda's wheels are round, but that’s about it.
We counted 25 squircles before, well, losing count. The half square, half circle shape is used for the speakers, door handles, instrument dials, gearlever knob, heating/ventilation controls, audio/infotainment controls, steering wheel controls, headliner design, some seat fabric designs, and the steering wheel boss (though the rim is round, thankfully).
On the outside, the shape is found again on wheels for the Panda logo, and can also be seen in the rear window design and even to a lesser degree the headlights.
And if you like detail, the black plastics of the interior feature dimpled lettering like a wordsearch puzzle – where the only word you can find is Panda!
This is all about adding a fun element to the city car, though the Fiat Panda means serious business for the brand in Australia.
Since assuming control of the Fiat brand from importer specialist Ateco, FiatChrysler Australia has been intent on turning it from niche player to bigger-volume contender.
Not including Fiat commercial vehicles, Ateco offered only the 500 but the Panda joins a line-up that also now comprises the Punto light car and Freemont people-mover.
That makes three city cars for Fiat, which might be considered overkill for any other brand that wasn’t a small car specialist.
The Fiat Panda sits in the middle dimensionally – 3653mm versus the 3546mm 500 and 4065mm Punto – though its price starts higher.
Where the 500 and Punto driveaway prices are $14,000 and $16,000, respectively, the new Panda costs $16,500 with all charges included.
It’s a surprise given the Panda is cheaper than both in the UK and Europe.
The base Fiat Panda Pop also misses out on leather steering wheel and electrically adjustable side mirrors of the 500 Pop but is similar to the Punto Pop. Cruise control isn't available. The Panda also only achieved a four-star independent crash rating in Europe where its siblings scored the maximum five. Read full pricing and specifications for the Fiat Panda.
If you want the best-driving Fiat available in Australia, however, the Panda is the pick.
Where the Punto rides too firmly and the 500 is too bouncy, the Panda’s better-damped suspension provides far smoother passage around city streets and along country rides.
Whether you’re on the 14-inch steel wheels of the Pop and Easy or the 15-inch alloys of the Lounge and Trekking trim grades, the Fiat Panda rides bumps well at varying speeds.
There’s some slight body roll around corners as you’d expect from the tall-riding stance but nothing that will make you queasy or uneasy.
The steering is more accurate than the 500’s vage tiller, too. It’s quite heavy at low speed, though as with the other baby Fiats there’s a City mode that conveniently increases the steering assistance below 35km/h for manoeuvres such as parking.
The seating position is quite upright and there’s only a small footrest, so the jury remains out on how comfortable the Panda would be on longer journeys. That elevated seating, though, contributes to great all-round vision.
Certainly in the city, where it will be used predominantly, we didn’t find it difficult getting comfortable despite the lack of reach adjustment for the steering wheel or height adjustment for the driver’s seat.
Depending on your available budget, there are three engines offered with the Fiat Panda.
If you only have the $16,000 (no more to pay), you won’t be too disappointed with the 1.2-litre four-cylinder in the base Pop.
It’s a more useful performer than an official 0-100km/h time of 14.2 seconds suggests. The engine’s response to throttle pedal pressure isn’t what you’d call enthusiastic, but acceleration is sufficient for everyday traffic.
The five-speed manual is a pleasure to use, too, with an easy, precise action, though with 2600 engine revolutions occurring at 100km/h an extra, sixth gear would be handy for freeway cruising.
The 1.2 is actually quieter than the 0.9-litre two-cylinder turbo, though the ‘Twinair’ engine’s noise is mostly hugely likeable thanks to the characterful warble it emits.
There’s plenty of vibration at low revs, though, and when combined with Fiat’s Dualogic auto can give the impression the engine is about to stall as you slow to a standstill.
Fiat’s perseverance with this pseudo-manual automatic over a conventional torque converter self-shifter found in most rival city cars isn’t that logical, though.
Leave the transmission in Auto mode, and the Panda and its occupants lurch forward with each upshift. There’s the same pronounced lack of smoothness if you decide to change gears manually using the fore-aft lever.
We were stuck in Melbourne traffic for more than two hours, so our time with the Twinair Fiat Panda was limited. We know the engine well from our experience with the 500 Twinair, though.
It certainly offers more pace than the 1.2L (0-100km/h 11.2sec), and both performance and fuel economy are helped by the engine’s cleverly flexible valve system that distinctively operates electro-hydraulically to optimise the amount of air being allowed into the cylinders.
We found the two-cylinder to be thirstier than official figures, however. For the Panda, those are better than the 1.2’s (5.2 litres per 100km) and even a match for the 1.3-litre turbo diesel’s (4.2L/100km). Choose the two-cylinder with auto rather than manual and you’ll shave that by another tenth of a litre.
If you want to show off your fuel-saving ability, or are into online gaming, the Panda features an eco:Drive that allows owners to record their driving style onto a USB. They can then download this onto a dedicated Fiat website, which will calculate a score out of a 100 based on the driver’s eco-driving skills (or lack of).
The diesel, which like the Twinair employs stop-start, is the best Fiat Panda engine but two big catches are that you’ll need $24,000 plus on-road charges and there’s no auto option.
Using a manual in rush-hour traffic can be a chore but as with the 1.2L the diesel’s manual is at least another sweet-shifting gearbox. The fact it’s officially 1.6 seconds slower to 100km/h than the Twinair is an example of how such figures don’t always reflect real world performance, because the diesel Panda is easier to drive from a standing start and punchier through the gears thanks to its superior engine torque (which also kicks in earlier than in the petrols).
Back to those squircles, and Fiat says there are 14 storage spots in the Panda. There are plenty of cupholders, and the open ‘glovebox’ is particularly useful.
The top of the dash also has a section prepped to take an optional Tom Tom sat-nav unit that costs $540.50 on any model.
You can pair your phone with the Fiat’s Blue&Me connectivity system either via the Tom Tom or the Panda’s own set-up, though the latter won’t allow this to be done if the car is moving.
Slotting rear adults into the back seat comfortably will depend on heights. Kids will be fine, but knee room is tight even for a 5ft 8in person sitting behind their driving position. That tall body – more than 6cm higher than the rooflines of the Punto and 500 – ensures there’s plenty of headroom, though.
Just the presence of rear doors already makes the Panda more practical than the 500, which is deliberately more fashion-conscious.
Boot space is a halfway point between the new ‘Bambino’ and the Punto: 225 litres v 185L and 275L. It stretches to 870 litres when folding the 60/40 split fold back seats.
That’s about the ballpark for the sub-light segment in which the Panda effectively operates, at least at base level.
And it's in Pop form where it compares most favourably with the likes of the Volkswagen Up and Nissan Micra. Once you go above the Pop, as with other sub-light cars the Panda starts to overlap with larger city cars such as the Mazda 2, VW Polo and Ford Fiesta that offer more boot and passenger space.
The pricing for Fiat's latest small car is a bit curious considering the price sensitivity of the market below $20,000, and that does restrict its overall score. However, like its 500 stablemate the Fiat Panda is loaded with a charm few city cars can match while it's also one of the more polished cars in its class to drive.