Not only did the original Panda do exactly what it said on the box – provide simple, honest, affordable transport — but it made a virtue of being a box. This was back in the days when Fiat called the shots. The Panda was smart, cheeky, uncomplicated, and just what the market needed in 1980.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that when a new name had to be found for the sub-Punto- sized supermini (Renault protesting that the proposed ‘Gingo’ sounded too much like Twingo), Panda all but chose itself.
But the new one, philosophically, is the original’s polar opposite – a small car seeking to emulate the comfort and quality of a bigger one. Initially, this seems to leave the Punto exposed, but not when you consider how the performance of Fiat’s model strategy depends on greater small-car diversity. The Panda family will eventually include a baby SUV and a four-seater convertible. Below it comes next year’s three-door Seicento replacement and an even shorter Smart-rivalling city car.
Meanwhile this one lacks the radicalism we might have expected of Fiat. But that’s no excuse for the tragic blanding-out of the exquisitely pretty Punto or, to be frank, a new Panda that, despite being neat and well proportioned, looks as charmless as a Tupperware sandwich box, with a nose so nondescript it depends on its large Fiat badge to establish any sense of identity.
The high roof, low waistline and sharply curtailed rump are fashionably cod-MPV and, inside, the absolutely huge centre console that lifts the stubby gearlever closer to the steering wheel also smacks of people carrier. And, importantly for city runabouts, you can squeeze five adults into the new Panda – something you can’t even attempt in a Ford Ka. Despite the almost bolt-upright backrests of the split rear seats allowed by the voluminous headroom, rear legroom is very tight, especially if anyone of 5ft 8in or more is occupying the front. The front seats have what appear to be hollow backrests into which knees with nowhere to go can be pressed but, even so, the back of the new Panda is not a place where grown-ups will be spending much time. A sliding rear seat that allows more rear legroom at the expense of boot space is an option that’s probably worth having, with the proviso that the boot already looks to be under some pressure.
It’s all a great deal more pleasant in the front, with a commanding view over the short snout, a spot-on driving position and chunky, well-placed switchgear. The cloth-trimmed front seats are reasonably comfortable, but a bit small and shapeless, especially in the cushion, which sometimes makes you feel you’re sliding off. The Emotion’s comprehensive seat tilt adjustment is an impressively up-market touch, in keeping with the general quality of plastics and materials used throughout the cabin and the way they combine to create an ambience of quality rarely encountered in a sub-£7k supermini.
The impression of being in a bigger, more expensive car is reinforced on the move. Fiat’s 59bhp 1.2-litre engine from the Punto doesn’t have the most charismatic of notes, so it’s a good thing its sonic contribution is subdued in the Panda, helped by torque-optimised tuning (75lb ft at 2500rpm) that makes revving the engine much beyond 5000rpm a largely pointless exercise. That said, the slick, snappy gearshift and taut driveline don’t discourage you from swapping cogs for the sake of it, but at 14.0secs to 60mph it’s hardly fast.
The suspension is remarkably quiet, adding to the overall refinement. And, on some roads, you really will believe that Fiat has finally cracked it, nailing the sweet spot between grippy, agile handling and an agreeably compliant ride.
At brisk speeds on fairly smooth roads, the keen responses of the helm, plucky adhesion and general composure are admirable in view of the supple, comfortable ride. But test the chassis on bumpier surfaces and, to a degree, the early excellence unravels, and the new Panda feels slightly floaty over large undulations, despite its inability to deal convincingly with smaller bumps and ruts around town. Still, it’s a better compromise than the Punto’s unrelenting firmness. And it’s fun so long as you don’t mind a bit of body roll and not having the last word in nimbleness.
But it’s the refinement, build and space that will sell the new Panda. Whether it’s enough in a market where the alternatives are cuter we’ll know soon enough. Fiat hasn’t played it this safe for a long time. It might just work.