Fiat Panda Trekking Diesel – Italy’s loveable mini Tonka Truck
I remember hearing the Top Gear presenters say, "you cannot count yourself a motoring enthusiast unless you have owned an Alfa!". As I was choosing my last car, this played on my mind as I searched for something that was:
- Had the ‘X’ factor
…and would make me smile every time I looked at it and got set behind the wheel!
Enter the Fiat Panda. While not setting Australian sales charts alight, it was, and is, Italy’s most popular car. I thought, surely the Italians can’t be that far wrong… And they have that certain je ne sais quoi (yes, I know it’s French!).
Deciding which model to choose was easy. With mini Tonka truck-style looks and a meaty (maybe not quite steak like) diesel thrum, the Trekking diesel ticked all the boxes, and better yet, I had not seen one on the road. Yes, my city car was more exclusive than headlining Italians like Ferrari, Maserati or the Alfa!
How much did it cost?
With a list price of somewhere in the vicinity of $28,000 on the road, the Panda Trekking is not cheap for a city car. But, being hard to shift, deals were to be had. Walking out of the showroom parting with a little more than $17,000, suddenly this was a car that resonated with both the heart and the head.
Is it well equipped?
For less than $18K brand-new, this pint-sized SUV (almost) is packed with features. Safety-wise, it is pretty standard fare, with requisite airbags and ABS, but comfort and convenience are where the Panda shines.
Outside there are chunky alloys, fog lights and heaps of cladding to protect it from the wild of the supermarket carpark and slim inner-city streets. These along with the slightly raised ride height really do give it a mini-SUV look.
Inside, climate control, Bluetooth connectivity and heated front seats are welcome additions, with partial leather trim letting you know this little truck is also about providing a bit of pampering after you have hit the urban jungle. There is even a heated front screen (yes, you read correctly, front screen) that is a real bonus on cold mornings, especially when many city cars get parked outside – Canberrans take note!
How does it drive?
As you insert the key and twist the barrel, I am reminded of my brother's series-one Volkswagen Golf diesel. Yes, you need to wait for the glow plugs to warm up. Admittedly it only takes a few seconds, but adds a little old-school drama to the city-car experience.
While a little rough as it warms up, the diesel thrum is friendly and unobtrusive, and while spinning at about 3000rpm at highway speeds it is never tiring.
Having a slightly raised ride height has no measurable impact on day-to-day handling. It snakes through city roundabouts, hops over speed humps and conversely handles country roads and interstate highways with aplomb. But all this must be said coming from a driver that has upgraded from a less than benchmark original Kia Soul, but I find little to fault in daily driving.
No, I am not Michael Schumacher, and in the Panda, the only way to win the traffic-light dash is with predictive intuition. However, the lack of initial performance and turbo lag (yes, it has a turbo) is offset by a good dose of mid-range torque that makes overtaking achievable, country driving fun, and hills something the little Panda scampers over with ease.
The gearbox is easy to use. The only complaint is the need to fully depress the clutch to spark the standard ‘stop-start’ system to life – something that can catch you out for the first few drives, with potentially horn-provoking consequences.
Parking is a breeze. Visibility is second to none, and with standard rear parking sensors, there are no excuses for tackling even the smallest spot. The best bit, however, is ‘city steering'. At the touch of a magic button, the wheel spins with the one-finger application (not that I am recommending that). The Panda has all the features to be the true master of the inner urban environment.
Style, design and practicality
If you take a peek at reviews of the Fiat Panda on release, you will hear much talk about ‘squircles'. Yep, something between a square and a circle. They and the word ‘panda’ are everywhere! Buttons, dials and the alloy wheel design all incorporate this unique shape. It certainly provides a talking point and makes you realise this is way more than your average econobox.
Yes it is boxy, upright and not what you would call slippery in design, but this means IKEA trips are not something to be scared of. And other than a little less leg and knee room than you might like, even the tallest people will find the rear seats bearable.
Having older parents, getting in and out of a regular city car is not easy, but the Panda’s slightly raised ride height and large doors make access easy – and by golly the door thunk is Mercedes-Benz beating.
Does it love service stations?
It’s a diesel and city car, surely a recipe for economy? Yep, averaging less than five litres per 100km even in the city, the economy is astounding. I attest to chasing a low readout on the standard trip computer and aiming to always end a trip extending my ‘kilometres till empty'. However, with standard ‘start-stop’ functionality and the diesel’s inherit economy, if you are searching for a car with low consumption and environmental impact, this fits the bill.
What about reliability and servicing?
As a driver with economy and low running costs high on my list, this was one area that left me a little disappointed. Yes, service intervals are yearly or when the odometer hits 15,000km, but the prices are not what you would call affordable, with year two setting me back in the vicinity of 4 figures.
The warranty too is a measly three years. Yes, it should and has proven overseas to be reliable, but with a relatively small number sold here in Australia parts might be hard to come by. A small problem in year two of ownership had the Panda off the road for weeks. It must be said however Fiat were astounding and supplied a loan car throughout the period, but it did not instil me with post warranty confidence.Where did the love go?
Unfortunately, this last point is what brought my relationship with the adorable Fiat Panda to an end. But I am still considering moving to Italy. If they are as popular there as a Hyundai Getz, then there must be something to like about Italians.
Summing it up
Diesel city car. Economical SUV. Compact luxury. All seem like oxymorons, especially for less than $20K. But as you’ll discover, there is heaps to like about Italy’s most popular car, especially in Trekking diesel trim. For the right price you can’t go wrong, and will be fending off questions from inquisitive car enthusiasts and yielding smiles from fashionistas as you drive by in the closest thing since the Suzuki Jimny to a mini Tonka Truck, and something way more exclusive than a Ferrari.