Put simply, the Panda is everything you need in a car with nothing you don’t.
After being half bored to death with my slushbox 2009 Civic; I was in the market for something a bit ‘different'. Something that I’d actually enjoy driving on a day-to-day basis. Originally, I was looking at either a VW Up (exclamation mark) or the base-model Fiat 500; but after seeing them in the flesh, they were all just a bit too ‘cute-sy'.
Enter: the Fiat Panda. It’s just a simple, functional, no nonsense kind of a car.
We’ll start with the basics. After much deliberation, I opted for the tried and tested 1.2 litre FIRE engine. I figured that if Fiat have been using this powerplant in most models since the mid 1980’s, it can’t be half bad. The old fashioned 8-valve unit makes a modest 50-something kilowatts of power with about 100 newton metres of torque. And while this won’t exactly tear your face off, it happily shuffles the circa 950kg bear around with ease.
Torque peaks at around 3000rpm meaning you can happily get ‘round town below this. It’s perfectly civilised on the highway, too. After a two-and-a-bit hour stint at 110kph I’m happy to report that my spine wasn’t horribly disfigured, nor were my ears bleeding. In fact, you can even have a normal conversation at these speeds. If you do however want to wind ‘er up to the distant 6500rpm redline, the car is more than happy to oblige; and there’s a nice gravelly exhaust note up there, too. Fuel economy is not too bad, either. A tank of 95-octane returns 5.5-6 litres per 100km on a 50/50 town/highway cycle.
Corners aren’t too much of a fuss, either. With the whole ‘wheel-at-each-corner’ thing going for it, the Panda darts around town with ease. You will find a bit of body roll on faster corners, but nothing too dramatic. The other thing worth mentioning is the visibility. It is absolutely incredible. There is so much glass around the rear or the car that it makes parking, reversing, lane changing and all that kind of stuff a breeze. So much so, that the omission of rear parking sensors isn’t really a problem at all. The other thing that aids parking dramatically is the absolutely brilliant turning circle. The ride itself is what you’d for the most part call ‘compliant’ with only the larger bumps upsetting it too much. And it isn’t at all choppy like the 500.
By choosing the 1.2 engine, I was limited to the base model Pop variant. When I say this car is ‘simple’, I mean simple. In fact, I’m pretty sure the Panda is the only new car on the market with manual rear windows. What you do get though is just about everything you need. Plenty-cold air conditioning, remote central locking, radio controls on the steering wheel and Bluetooth with iPod input. And you know what? Not once have I thought “oooh, I wish this car had heated, leather seats, or fog lights, or one of those confusing infotainment systems”. Everything fitted to the car serves a purpose, and does so in a very simple, straightforward kind of manor. Besides, the point of a cheap simple car is to be, well, cheap and simple.
Now, ergonomics is an area that Italian cars have never really excelled at; and the Panda isn’t completely immune to some of this euro-weirdness. Namely, the window switches are placed just above the gearstick (a-la Fiat 500). This took me a little while to get used to, as did the fact the passenger’s side window is auto-down only. The centre console does also encroach into your knee space a bit.
Apart from these few quirks though, the interior is actually a pretty nice, airy place to be. The rest of the knobs, switches and buttons are all logically laid out; and everything has a nice solid feel to it. The whole “box-on-wheels” design means shoulder and head room is pretty good, even in the back. Rear leg room? Not so much. I mean, it’s fine for the occasional back seat passenger but that’s about it. Then again, you can’t expect acres of space from a car that’s only marginally longer than, say, a shoe.
Fix It Again, Tony? If I had a dollar for every time someone said this to me, I could probably afford to buy another Panda. Unlike its Polish-built sibling, the 500; the Panda is built in Italy. And I think that, oddly enough, this works to the car’s advantage. As previously mentioned, everything interior-wise feels pretty solid. Outside the car is a similar story. Panel gaps are uniformally small, and the doors make a nice satisfying ‘thud’, too. Admittedly, it’s only early days but nothing has yet gone wrong. I think Tony might soon be out of work.
Given the competition, I really can’t understand why you don’t see more Pandas on the road. Lack of brand (model) awareness, maybe? If you are in the market for something small though, I’d urge you to take a look at the Panda. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.