What is it?
It’s the new Fiat Panda 100hp, and there aren’t enough cars like it in the world. At risk of sounding like a miserable old duffer, mainstream cars are typically nowhere near as much fun as they used to be. That they’re stronger, safer and more refined is beyond question. It’s just that they’ve lost much of their excitement along the way. So the arrival of the Panda 100hp is rather refreshing, because it’s a wee bundle of fun.
What’s it like?
Great to look at, we think. The wheels are where they should be, right bang in the corners; the body skirts and wheelarches are flared just-so; the cheeky wee chrome tailpipe, false diffuser and (real) rear spoiler are jolly without being oversized.
And the same goes for the alloys. Fifteen-inch wheels are small by today’s standards – even Corsas come with nothing diddier – but here they add just the right poise; helped no end by a 25mm suspension drop. It’s not aggressive – this is a Fiat Panda, after all, so it’s more Pirates of the Caribbean than Apocalypse Now. The autofication of swashbuckling nonsense.
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.