How the Fiat Panda became cool

 
Ryan Borroff
IN 1980, the original Fiat Panda was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro to be a small, cheap and cheerful, no frills utility vehicle. Clever innovations included a hammock-like rear seat that could be folded flat to make a bed or removed completely to generate van-like load space.

Fiat has sold 6.5 million Pandas since then and it’s hoping a similar mix of cheery functionality and fun will see this third generation Panda maintain its position as Europe’s best-selling supermini. In a market driven by older buyers, the biggest single group of Panda drivers are people who might be politely called grey. Fiat’s smaller, cooler and more expensive 500 on the other hand is mostly driven by people in their late thirties and up. Fiat is hoping it can retain the interest of people aged 50+ and entice younger owners to move out of their 500s and into a Panda when they spawn.

Curvier than before, the new Panda is still tall and has the same eager, sunny disposition of the old one. Now it looks like all of its corners and windows have had the edges sanded off. It looks a little bigger, more youthful, cuter even. Whether it will acquire a similar cool image to the 500 remains to be seen.

Fiat has improved the interior significantly. Most noticeable is the dashboard design. Here Fiat has taken the rounded-off theme to the max. The dash incorporates a roomy storage shelf above the glovebox in one big, continuous “squircle”, then the instruments, air-con and audio dials, even the leather steering wheel look a little bit square. The dash is made of hard plastic but in our test car all of the touch points are in soft leather, and the overall impression is that this is a good quality, modern interior.

Inside it’s surprisingly quiet – there is some tyre and wind noise but not much engine noise even in the throaty TwinAir version, unless your foot is to the floor. Fiat has done a lot of work on the suspension and body to create a stronger, stiffer and lighter car that should be more comfortable and handle better. I find the ride is firm though the Panda does soak up most bumps well. Unfortunately, I find the seat base so unyielding that I feel like I am balanced upon it – rather than in it – which is a little disconcerting. Over some of the bigger bumps on our test route around Edinburgh I feel like I’m bouncing around all over the place.

The car feels bigger than it is. The driving position is high and the view out very good. Rear legroom, though, is tight. With an average-height driver ahead of you you’ll be needing to take the optional rear sliding seat bench to be comfortable. This will of course eat into your 250 litres of boot space.

The new Panda will be sold with three engine options initially, the two-cylinder 875cc, 85hp TwinAir Turbo petrol, the four-cylinder 69hp 1.2-litre petrol and the 1.3-litre MultiJet2 turbo diesel. I drive all three. The diesel may be the most versatile but unless you require such extensive fuel economy – Fiat claims 72.4mpg is possible – I can think of no reason to buy it. The 1.2-litre petrol is less tiring to drive than the the TwinAir engine but not nearly half as much fun. The two-cylinder engine seems to suit the eager disposition of the Panda and the effect of its husky engine noise is to provide a much more entertaining drive, though you’d have to be gentle with the right pedal if you want to get anywhere close to the (combined cycle) 67.3mpg figures that Fiat claims it will return.

Driving the TwinAir Panda is simple, good, honest fun. Its three-door 500 sibling may be more fashionable but make no mistake, the new Fiat Panda is now more hip than it has ever been. It’s less square and a more complete drive all round.

THE FACTS: FIAT PANDA TWINAIR TURBO

PRICE: £10,750
0-62MPH: 11.2sec
TOP SPEED: 110mph
CO2 G/KM: 99g/km
MPG COMBINED: 67.3mpg

THE VERDICT:

DESIGN ****
PERFORMANCE ****
PRACTICALITY ***
VALUE FOR MONEY ****