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A very fine multi-use little car that offers an enticing ownership proposition

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The Fiat Panda is not just a baby car, whatever the diminutive overall length of just 3650mm implies.

It's always been quite different in character from rivals similar in size and price. Others are called city cars or economy cars; the Panda is more of an ‘essential’ car, created for many who will use it as their only car. Fiat boss Olivier François sums it up as “the official car for doing whatever the hell you like”.

Fiat says Panda interior has 14 storage spaces, but by far the most useful one is the large, old-fashioned open compartment on the passenger's side

Fiat’s tradition of small car manufacture began in 1938 with the 500, known as the ‘Topolino’. Conceived by legendary engineer Dante Giacosa, it helped mobilise pre-war Italy. In the early 1950s, Giacosa designed the rear-engined 600 and then, in 1957, launched the classic Nuova 500, the tiny car that went on to capture the hearts of owners worldwide.

The 500 stayed in production until 1975, while various developments of the 600 followed (the 850 and its replacement, the 127). In 1980, the original Panda was born and, since then, the 1983 Uno and 1993 Fiat Punto have been big small-car successes.

Fiat's Panda is essential to the company in the sales sense, too. The company has averaged more than 200,000 Pandas a year for over 30 years. Production of the Panda has even passed 6.5 million units, yet this new model is only the third generation, and now provides the backbone that Fiat 500 and the Ford Ka have both used - admittedly, with varying degrees of success.

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The previous Panda even won the coveted Car of the Year award in 2004. Can this third gen model recapture those charms in a familiar-looking package.



Fiat Panda rear

Fiat says the latest evolution of the Panda has made a “qualitative leap in comfort, technology and safety equipment, and has a modern, harmonious look”, something which Fiat won't look tamper with too much with its impending facelift.

Translated, if the looks ain’t broke, don’t fix ’em; just give the punters more value for money with equipment and a better drive to boot.

Visibility is decent all round — this is a small car that doesn’t need parking sensors at either end

At its core, the new Panda shares hardware with the second-generation model but has nevertheless been very substantially reworked. The wheelbase is unaltered, at 2300mm, but the body is 114mm longer, 11mm taller and 65mm wider at the waistline.

Aero drag factor is cut from an unimpressive 0.40 to 0.33. Body stiffness is improved, and Fiat also claims major reductions in noise and vibration from engine, wind and road. The Panda now weighs 930kg, about 60kg more than the outgoing model.

The body delivers modern crash performance in addition to its improved aerodynamic qualities. Also new is a stylish and practical dashboard – it provides several of the 14 on-board storage spaces – extensively revised front suspension that benefits from a stiffer shell, tweaks to the rear axle and a much wider equipment choice.

Powering the little Panda is two power units - a 68bhp 1.2-litre naturally aspirated engine and a 0.9-litre TwinAir unit, which is the only engine to come with Fiat's robotised manual gearbox.

But the Panda range isn't just limited to a fairly cute looking supermini, with the Panda 4x4 and the rugged Panda Cross. The 4x4 lives up to its name, with its fitment of all-weather tyres, off-road-styled bumpers and an aluminium skid plate, while the even more rough and ready Cross has a raised ride height, front and rear bumpers, and more prominent side mouldings


Fiat Panda front seats
No complaints about space up front, where a high roofline makes it feel bigger than it is

Inside, the emphasis is on stylish practicality. Fiat has redesigned the dashboard of the Panda to improve the layout and ease of use, and the fascia design is both appealing and extremely practical. Designers make great play of providing 14 different compartments for gadgets big and small. Visibility is spectacular and the controls/dials are simple to operate.

Fiat even claims a dual role for several items in the cabin. The handbrake, for example, is said to double up as a “hand rest” when it is down. We’re not really sure what this means, but it works well as a handbrake and nothing else.

I love the softly rounded edges to the square dials. It's a simple design touch that really lifts the Fiat's cabin

Order the Panda in one of the more interesting cabin colourways and you have a pretty agreeable environment in which to travel. The dashboard’s wide, colour-coded perimeter, some subtly stylish instruments and a faux piano-black finish for the main switch control pack in the higher-series versions all help you escape the fact that you’re aboard a modestly priced commuter car.

It’s a shame that the centre console carrying the handily high-mounted gearlever robs you of inboard knee room in the otherwise accommodating cockpit. The steering wheel is of a slightly odd squared-off design, but this doesn’t have an impact on its control.

The rear accommodation is much improved over the old Fiat Panda’s. Despite the identical wheelbase, there’s more leg and knee space and headroom is still as decent as it always was, thanks to the high roof.

The rear seat splits (either 50:50 or 60:40) and slides to allow flexible space and seating arrangements, and the front passenger seat backrest can be folded to form a table. Boot space is increased from the old Panda’s modest 206 litres to a much more usable 260. It’s a nice square shape, too.

As for the trim levels, there are three key ones to choose from - Pop, Easy and Lounge. The entry-level model comes with electric front windows, a height adjustable steering and hill hold assist, while upgrading to the Easy model adds remote central locking, air conditioning and roof rails. The range-topping Lounge trim gives the Panda 15in alloy wheels, front fog lights, a six-speaker sound system and Fiat's Uconnect infotainment system complete with USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

For those opting for the more rugged Panda 4x4 or the tougher Panda Cross, fear not, these both come with their own trim specification, with the former including, 15in alloys, electrically adjustable and heated wing mirrors, and a height adjustable driver's seat. The latter includes swish silver roof bars, climate control, LED day-running-lights, all-wheel drive and three driving modes, and mud and snow tyres.


Fiat Panda side profile
It’s worth less experienced drivers ticking the ESP option box

Two different engines are offered in the Panda. The base engine is Fiat’s ubiquitous 1.2-litre 69bhp FIRE engine. There’s also the parallel twin-cylinder TwinAir engine in turbocharged 85bhp form, which uses a developed version of Fiat’s uniquely flexible valve timing system, dubbed MultiAir II. This engine emits less than 100g/km of CO2.

The Panda TwinAir turbo is as engaging as ever. You can drive it for economy and change up at amazingly low revs, but it’s more fun to drive using the revs. This characterful engine is actually a more engaging proposition when out of the city limits. Around town, the gearing fluctuates between holding too many revs and too few, which leaves you frequently swapping cogs.

The Panda’s light weight and willing drivetrain make it an entertaining companion

Fiat's 1.2-litre FIRE engine is the smoothest spinning motor, has the most distant rev limit (6300rpm) and issues none of the TwinAir’s thrummy vibrations.


Fiat Panda rear cornering
ESP was an option not specified on our original test car

Fiat has introduced big revisions to the Panda’s suspension (still MacPherson struts in front, coil-sprung twist beam behind) that reduce understeer by 20 percent, cut body roll by 35 percent and make the electric power steering a lot more sensitive.

The Fiat Panda feels tall when you first slide behind the wheel but much more roomy than the previous model. Even at low speed, the improvements in the levels of noise, vibration and harshness are instantly obvious. In particular, the Panda is much quieter than its predecessor on coarse surfaces and rides flatter.

The Fiat Panda stops quickly and with reassuring stability from high speeds

The baby Fiat’s all-round refinement is as impressive as the rest of the package. It rides cobbles with unexpected suppleness and an impressive all-of-a-piece aura. Road noise too, proves pleasingly distant. So the prospect of long-distance trips should not prompt thoughts of the train.

Strangely, the ride is sometimes less good at middling speeds than it is over battered urban Tarmac, the Fiat Panda’s wheels pattering slightly, and on the rain-slicked roads around Naples where we drove it, front end grip tended wash away like sand from an ocean-dipped seaside spade.

Surprisingly, ESP isn’t standard, but the Panda handles tidily enough. Roll is countered adequately despite its relative height and the steering responds with fair precision if little feel. All of which makes it modestly entertaining, and more than modestly comfortable.

The steering, still light, is far more informative. For all the talk of reduced understeer, the Panda will still push its front wheels wide, and body roll remains noticeable, although never a problem.

Fiat is backing up its front-wheel-drive models with a Panda 4x4 that has extra-strength suspension mountings and unique spring/damper/anti-roll bar rates delivering increased wheel travel, while the Panda Cross takes this formula one stage further.

Drive to the rear wheels is through a hydraulically actuated multi-plate clutch ahead of the rear diff. Our favourite Panda is the 4x4, which rides high on big tyres, has long suspension travel and generally behaves like a small Land Rover Discovery.


Fiat Panda

The Fiat Panda is no longer the cheap entry-level city car it once was. But it’s bought by a much wider spectrum of buyers than your average city car, so the Panda’s customer base is likely to be attracted by the great improvements in interior design, quality and space, plus the potential economy and running costs offered by the new engine range.

The Panda starts a 1.2 FIRE engine in Pop trim. Want to spend more? Opt for the range-topping Lounge specification.

TwinAir engine is fun to use and listen to, but in our experience falls a long way short of claimed mpg figures in real-world use

Pop-spec models get electric windows, central locking, body-coloured bumpers and four airbags. ESP, roof rails and black pastel paint come as optional extras. Easy-trim variants add remote central locking, air conditioning, roof rails and an upgraded stereo system. Lounge models get heated electric mirrors, front fog lights, 15-inch alloy wheels and body-coloured mirrors and door handles as standard.

As for economy, the TwinAir is the one to get the most headlines. Its figures of 67mpg and 99g/km are very attractive on paper, particularly when you throw in its congestion charge and VED exemptions. But, as we know from experience of this engine in the 500, those claimed figures are nigh-on impossible to achieve, although Fiat promises revisions are on the way to improve this.



4 star Fiat Panda
The 1242cc four-pot is the only engine not to get stop-start

Fiat is so good with small cars that you wonder why it bothers with anything else.

The Fiat Panda is another example of Fiat’s excellence in this segment. It’s a budget machine that’s more desirable than most and can be had with some attractive options, but more importantly its underpinnings have gone on to feature on the Fiat 500 and the Ford Ka.

Outstanding handling; now a more comfortable, classy overall package

It certainly has all the appeal of the old Panda and, as such, should prove one of the best options in the class.

If your requirement is for a very compact city car that must also swallow long distances, the TwinAir Panda could be the answer, if not the oilburner Panda 4x4 maybe more appropriate.

It’s civilised, pleasing to sit in if you avoid the base specification – although that is far from unacceptable – roomy and potentially very well equipped. More than any previous Panda, it’s a city car that can be your only car. And you can’t ask a lot more of budget wheels than that.

Sure, it doesn’t have quite the slick city style of the Volkswagen Up or Hyundai i10, or even the cheeky character of the Fiat 500, but it is considerably more versatile and a big improvement on an already useful and engaging car.

Another Fiat success beckons.


Fiat Panda First drives