What is it?
This is the first time we've driven the Fiat Panda on British tarmac, and in a right hand drive configuration.
The 1.2-litre FIRE engine tested here will be the most popular engine in the Fiat Panda range, accounting for around 50 per cent of sales. It sits between the 875cc TwinAir and the 1.3-litre MultiJet diesel unit, and offers higher levels of refinement and NVH.
Most importantly, it’s the cheapest engine of the three and represents the best all-round choice.
What’s it like?
Surprisingly refined at speed. At 70mph, the engine is hushed and smooth, and sounds pleasant under moderate acceleration. Only when passing the 5000rpm mark on the way to the 6300rpm rev limit does it sound strained. The lack of torque – 75lb ft, versus the TwinAir’s 107lb ft and the diesel’s 140lb ft – is no problem around town, where the engine proves smooth and nippy, but at motorway speeds, overtakes need careful planning.
The Panda’s 14.2sec 0-62mph is pretty pedestrian, but it is largely a moot point in a car which will eek out its days slotting through traffic in town. It’s nice to know a city car can cut it on the motorway, where it feels stable. Low speed ride is good, and when the speed increases, the front MacPherson and rear torsion beam suspension continues to isolate the worst of Britain’s roads from the cabin. For all the talk of body roll, it’s never really a problem, and the steering provides enough feel to corner with confidence.
Moving the steering wheel from left to right has revealed a slightly off-set driving position, but after a morning behind the wheel, we were free from aches and pains.
Fiat’s marketing department is keen to trade on the back-to-basics nature of the original model, but the third generation wants for very little. The cabin is practical and well built - if lacking some of the tactility of the Volkswagen Up - and very stylish. Repeated use of "squircle" shapes around the cabin looks a little contrived in places, but the rounded-off square shapes for the instrumentation works well, if not for the steering wheel.
Although the new Panda shares the same basic frame construction with the second-generation model, Fiat says all other components are new. Despite this, interior space is improved, and slim seats add additional room in the back. The Panda will be sold as a four seater, but a fifth seat is a £100 option. Other peculiarities include the lack of a start-stop system on the 1.2-litre engine (it keeps costs down, and could make it easier for dealers to 'walk' buyers up to more expensive models, says Fiat) and the lack of standard-fit ESP on any model. As a result, Euro NCAP awarded the Panda four stars, while the Up achieved a full five star rating.
Should I buy one?
The raspy and eager TwinAir engine might grab the headlines, but most buyers want something that’s cheap to run, quiet and capable, which is where the 1.2 fits neatly. On paper, it might be the thirstiest model in the range, but it will certainly be easier to achieve the official combined cycle figure of 54.3mpg than it will be with the two-cylinder unit.
It’s also the cheapest engine in the range, and in a car that trades heavily on its honesty and the appeal of its basic nature, it is fitting that the model with the smallest price tag should be the best.