With the ride height reduction comes 25 per cent stiffer springs and dampers and a thicker front roll bar (there isn’t a rear one). The bump stops are polymer rather than rubber and come into play sooner. Rear disc brakes are from the Panda 4x4, ventilated front discs come from the new Punto, as does the engine. The 1.4-litre FIRE unit here develops 99bhp (100PS), up by 5bhp over its Punto application.
The interior is rather more standard. Front seats are well bolstered, but although Fiat claims the grey trim looks sportier than usual and the steering wheel’s leather-clad, it’s the gearknob’s six indicated speeds and the discreet Sport button (of which more later) that are the only obvious indications this is anything other than a regular Fiat Panda. Which, actually, makes it reminiscently like a junior hot-hatch of old: fun comes from driving, not from velour headlining.
And, to a point, that’s what this car is about. The Panda 100hp is a genuinely lively car to punt along. All of its major controls are light and the ride’s just the right side of acceptable. True, it’s a little jittery on bad roads and, because of its compact size, speed bumps tend to unsettle both front and rear at the same time, but they’re small prices to pay to get a car that’s so willing to change direction.
The Panda 100hp is enthusiastic and eager; it ducks into turns with less roll than you’d expect and the front tyres, 195/45 GoodYear Eagles, hang on gamely. When it’s wet, as it was for most of our test, even the Panda’s modes 99bhp will make them scrabble out of second gear corners, but grip levels are generally very high. Stay neutral on the throttle and eventually the Panda will understeer and, though there’s limited throttle adjustability, there’s also ESP too and it can’t be switched off, so this is a car you steer with the wheel, rather than using deft footwork to tighten a line.
Which brings us neatly to this car’s biggest downside. The Panda’s electrically assisted power steering is short on feel and the level of assistance is variable, so it lacks proper, linear response. The Sport button I mentioned earlier does what it can to help here. It’s the antithesis of the regular Panda’s City button, so instead of providing lighter, more manageable steering, it lessens assistance by 20 per cent. Which is about 80 per cent too little, in truth, but it’s welcome to the extent that you’d probably just leave it on. It also sharpens throttle response below 3000rpm, but not by a great deal. And given the engine revs to 7000rpm, you’ll hardly notice if you’re driving enthusiastically.
Fiat’s figures say the Panda will reach 62mph from rest in 9.5 sec and go on to 115mph, both of which sound ambitious to me. Our test car revved towards the red line with less enthusiasm than I’d expected, but then, it had only covered 1500 miles, so might loosen into the junior hot-hatch the claims suggest it is. The gearbox gets the best from it. The shift is sweet; short of throw and accurate of shift.
Should I buy one?
There are plenty of reasons to. And if it hasn’t already made a decent case for itself, consider that it comes very well equipped (electric windows, air-con, CD player), returns 40-plus mpg, is insurance group five and costs £9995. Sounds like a winner to us.