The joy of a Panda
Posted on: 21st Jun 2012
What’s the secret of a successful small car? I was reminded of that tricky question whilst test driving a Fiat Panda.
I learned to drive in an early first-generation Panda. Early 1980s, Ballymena. It was a horrible thing and I hated it. It was red, with a hard plastic interior, lumpy seats, a gearbox fashioned from rubber and a terrible, spluttering little engine. Compared to it, my dad’s Avenger was heaven on four wheels.
Still, it got me through my test, so I should be grateful for that. But if you’d asked me then whether the Fiat Panda would still be going strong in 2012, I’d have laughed in your face.
And if you’d told me it would have sold more than 6.5 million cars spanning three decades, well, the tears, as they say, would’ve been tripping me.
Now the joke’s on me. The Fiat Panda is now in its third generation and still going strong. So, clearly, Fiat is the possessor of the answer to the question posed above: just what is the secret of a successful small car.
First of all, though, I wasn’t completely wrong about those very first Pandas. Conceived in the 1970s and launched in 1980, it was originally designed as a “peasant’s car” – a brutally basic, cheap, no-frills, utility runaround.
Those initial cars lived up to the billing, however the clever thing was that Fiat immediately got into the habit of continually refining and improving the Panda. Within a short period of time it was a very good citycar – and its increasing urban popularity belied the original “peasant’s car” ideology.
Those constant improvements and regular facelifts kept the Panda lean, fit and in touch with the times. (Incidentally, production of the first-gen cars continued in Italy until 2003, making it one of the longest-produced cars in European history.)
Down the years, the Panda has deservedly won many awards, a habit that continued after the second generation model – known as the “New Panda” appeared eight years ago. The second gen was higher-bodied and squarer, with more than a nod to the new MPV class of car that had become popular amongst families.
This spirit continues in the third gen car, which was launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show last September and is now available for sale across Northern Ireland. The car I reviewed was a 1.2 Easy model from Donnelly Group Fiat in Mallusk.
Two things sprung immediately to mind – the third-gen shape continues to be square and tall in design and appearance, yet remains a small car and not an MPV-lite. The second is the little design touches scattered throughout the cabin – funky in a sensible kind of way, but certainly different enough for the Panda to stand out in the crowd.
Chief amongst these is the ‘squircle’, a kind of circular square, if you know what I mean. This motif appears throughout the car, inside and out, and suits, in a strange kind of way, the rounded off square design of the car itself.
Design is one of the Panda’s real strengths – and versatility too, the rear seats can be folded flat, or with a 60/40 split. A handy option is a flat-folding passenger seat which turns into a table. There’s an optional ‘cargo box’ container to slide into the flat rear space to keep loads secure.
The driver’s instrument binnacle is clear and functional, with strong hints of the squircle design.
Make and model
All cars have good basic safety equipment including ABS complete with Brake Assist, seatbelt pretensioners and four airbags. A further option is Electronic Stability Programme that includes Hill-holder (assists with hill starts).
The new Panda comes in three main trim levels: Pop, Easy and Lounge. Each builds on the trim level beneath, so my 1.2 Easy comes with Pop trim (electric power steering, central locking radio with MP3 and CD player with four speakers) with added roof rails, a better audio system, remote control central locking, manual air con and rear head restraints. Panda prices range from £8.5k - £12.3k. Expect to pay £9,550 for a 1.2 8v Easy Panda – Fiat finance deals are available.
On top of the basic trim, there’s a range of extra packs – Style, Techno and 5 Seat Flex so you can personalise the cars further.
Best of these is the Blue&Me TomTom2 Live – basically an integrated sat nav/mobile phone via Bluetooth ‘infotainment’ system.
The 1.2 Easy drives exceptionally well for a car in this class. Steering is light and responsive, and my model included an additional ‘City’ button to make the steering even lighter, handy for tricky places like multi-storey car parks.
Acceleration is, as you’d expect, not rapid and comes in around the 14 second mark in this model which features the 69 hp 1.2 ‘Fire’ engine. Pandas come with a range of engines including Fiat’s much-touted TwinAir diesel which delivers decent punch (89hp) coupled with high fuel efficiency (72.4 mpg combined) and ultra-low emissions of 95 g/km, which means no road tax under current legislation.
All in, you can pick and choose your engine – for a premium of course – but the 1.2 petrol is spirited, fun to drive and more than adequate for most situations.
So, after all that, has Fiat found the secret of success with the small car? Obviously yes – 6.5 million car sales can’t be wrong. Have they thrown it away with the third gen Panda? Definitively not – Fiat has managed to build on the brand’s strengths of versatility, interior space, fun and value for money. The latest Panda is bigger than a city car, but delivers city car levels of cost.