Italian style makes the Fiat Panda stand out from the many conservative vehicles competing in the small car market in Australia. The Panda could be described as a Fiat 500 ‘Cinquecento’ with a different body and the added convenience of back doors. Unlike the 500 which is unashamedly retro, the Panda is ultra modern in its funky shape.
Though the Fiat Panda has been on sale in Europe since 1980, with over six million sold to date, this Italian didn’t migrate downunder until mid 2013. The current generation Panda was introduced in Italy late in 2011 so will be current for another four to five years.
Panda’s stylists came up with a fascinating theme based around what they call a Squircle, that is squares rounded off by circular corners. The Fiat squircle is used on the exterior of the Panda to give what could have been a boxy vehicle a cute look. But it’s the numerous areas inside: the instrument surrounds, steering wheel centre, door handles, speaker housing, drink holders, and more - try to count them for yourself - that really makes the design out of the ordinary.
The Panda comes in Fiat’s usual model range: base Pop, midrange Easy and topline Lounge. Fiat Australia is asking only $16,500, driveaway for the Pop with a manual gearbox. None of the others are driveaway so their prices increase markedly.
Then there’s an additional version called the Panda Trekking. It has the appearance of a small SUV: big roof racks, bold door cladding, and raised ride height. It’s driven only through the front wheels, but grip is improved by a sophisticated traction control system. It’s no off-road bush-basher, but will take you to interesting places on family weekend exploration trips.
ENGINES / TRANSMISSIONS
The 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine is an old design and achieves only 51kW and 102Nm. It’s installed only in the Panda Pop. A turbo-petrol 875 cc twin-cylinder unit with 63kW of power, and 145Nm of torque at just 1900 revs is used in the Panda Easy and Lounge. A 1.3-litre turbo-diesel, gives you only 55 kilowatts, but its torque is a strong 190Nm that arrives at only 1500rpm. It is standard in the Trekking but not offered in the others.
The 1.2 petrol and the diesel come only with a five-speed manual gearbox. The 875 cc turbo-petrol comes with the same manual, but the gearbox can also be specified with the self-shifting five-speed Dualogic in the Panda Easy. The Dualogic is standard in the Trekking.
Even the cheapest model Panda Pop gets the sophisticated Blue&Me system developed by Microsoft and Fiat that uses voice activation and synchronises with various music devices and smartphones. Tom-Tom navigation is an option and slips into a built-in slot on the dash.
Panda only got four stars in European crash testing. However the local importer says it would have been classed as a five-star vehicle had the Euro models been equipped with ESC – all Australian imports have this feature.
Interior space is excellent for a car of this diminutive size and four adults can travel with only minimal need to shift the front seats forward to make room for tall people in the back. To achieve this voluminous cabin the seats are set noticeably higher than in most other cars. This can feel slightly awkward at first, but you soon grow into the Panda. Another positive thing about the high seating position is that those of us with ageing knees don’t have to bend as much to get in and out.
Our test vehicle was a Panda Easy with the two-cylinder turbo-petrol engine and the Dualogic automated manual. The little twin-cylinder engine has won numerous awards, principally because it’s one of the world’s cleanest engines, emitting less than 100 grams of CO2 per kilometre on the official driving cycle.
The little twin is rough and quite noisy at low speeds as you move off the line, but once its up and running it’s one of our favourite engines. It has a great note and just loves big revs in a very Italian manner. Row it along at high revs by way of the paddle shifters on the manual/auto gearbox and it’s sure to bring a smile to your face.
Let the Panda’s Dualogic box do its own gearchanging and you strike the usual bugbear of all self-shifting manuals, it’s jerky and slow in the lower gears. Once you’re into third and above it smooths out nicely. Ride comfort and noise isolation are generally good, but there’s a fair bit of road roar on coarse-chip surfaces. Try it for yourself if your driving is likely to be on country roads with that sort of surface.
Handling is safe and secure, with these little cars able to hold onto the road at speeds much higher than you would expect for what is after all a small family car. This means the Panda remains safe at speeds far higher than are likely to be attempted by most owners.
Yet another stylish and affordable Italian car to finally reach us in Australia, the Fiat Panda is well worth adding to your list to test drive, all the more so if you want something that’s right out of the ordinary.
Price: from $16,500 drive away
Warranty: 3 years/150,000km, 3yr roadside assist
Capped servicing: No
Service interval: 12mths/15,000km
Safety: 6 airbags, ABS, ESC, EBD, TC
Crash rating: not tested
Engine: 0.9-litre, 2-cyl turbo-petrol, 63kW/145Nm; 1.2-litre 4-cyl petrol, 51kW/102Nm; 1.3-litre 4-cyl turbo-diesel, 55kW/190Nm
Transmission: 5-spd man or 5-spd robotised man; front drive
Thirst: 4.2L/100km; 99g/km and 109g/km (0.9-litre/diesel); 5.2L/100km; 120g/km CO2 (1.2 petrol)
Dimensions: 4.0m (L), 1.7m (W), 1.5m (H)