Meet the Panda. It's a simple, functional, no nonsense kind of car. That's why I bought one.
We'll start with the basics. 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 8-valve unit makes a modest 52 kilowatts of power with 102 newton metres of torque. And while these figures aren't exactly earth-shattering, the four-pot happily shuffles the circa 950kg bear around with ease. 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. Fuel economy is not too bad either; a tank of 95-octane returns near 5.7 litres per 100km on a real-world combined cycle. To Fiat's credit, that isn't far off the claimed 5.2/100km.
Handling? Corners aren't too much of a fuss. With the whole ‘wheel-at-each-corner' thing going for it, the Panda darts around those frustrating little suburban chicanes with ease. You'll find a bit of body roll, but nothing too dramatic. The other thing worth mentioning is the incredible visibility. There is so much glass around the rear or the car that it makes parking, reversing, lane changing etcetera a breeze. So much so, that the omission of rear parking sensors isn't really a problem. Manoeuvrability is also aided by a brilliant turning circle; and Fiat's nifty ‘CITY' steering mode which provides a practically featherweight steering wheel.
The ride's what you'd call ‘compliant' with only larger bumps upsetting the car too much. Being based on the Fiat 500 chassis, you'd expect the little bear to bob up and down a fair bit. However, the longer wheelbase has an incredibly positive effective on the ride. It really feels quite planted.
Being Italian, the Panda's styling is what sets it apart from the competition. Fiat have designed the car around what they call a ‘squircle' (it's a box with rounded edges). When you start looking, these things are everywhere around the car. Whether you like it or not, this design queue really gives a sense of cohesion; adding some flair to what would otherwise be ‘just another econo-box'.
By choosing the 1.2 engine, I was limited to the 'Pop' model. Now, this car is basic. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's is the only new car on the market with manual rear windows. What you do get in the way of creature comforts though is just about everything you need. Plenty-cold air conditioning, remote locking, audio controls on the steering wheel and Bluetooth with iPod input; all of which are really very simple to use.
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; with a funny indented footrest.
Apart from these few quirks though, the interior is actually a pretty nice place to be. The rest of the knobs, switches and buttons are all logically laid out; and everything has a nice solid, tactile 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. 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 a shoe.
Fix It Again, Tony? I think not. 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 awareness, maybe? But, if you are in the market for something small, I'd urge you to take a look at the Panda. You'll be pleasantly surprised.