Fiat’s onslaught on the Australian market continues. Keen on becoming much more than an interesting niche player, the Italian auto giant with a long history of design flair and sportiness is now importing the Panda. Joining the oh-so-cute Fiat 500 and the relatively conservative Fiat Punto, the Panda is definitely out of the ordinary in its looks.

Fiat Panda has been made since 1980, with over six million built to date, but this is the first time it has migrated down under. The current model was introduced in Italy late in 2011 for the 2012 model year.

Explore the 2013 Fiat Panda Range

Models

Fiat Panda comes in the company’s familiar model range of base Pop, midrange Easy and topline Lounge. Pop is the price leader and Fiat Australia is asking only $16,500, which is a driveaway price. None of the others are driveaway so their prices increase significantly.

There’s also a version called the Panda Trekking. This has the appearance of a small SUV, with raised ride height, big roof racks and door cladding. It’s driven only through the front wheels, but grip on dirt roads, and perhaps at the beach, is improved by a sophisticated traction control system.

Engines and transmissions

The driveline is familiar from other Fiat models, particularly the new Fiat 500 Cinquecento. Indeed, the Panda could be described as a Fiat 500 with a different body and the convenience of back doors.

Engines are a turbo-petrol 875 cc twin-cylinder unit with 63 kW of power and 145 Nm of torque, the latter at just 1900 revs. This multiple-award winning engine is fitted to the Panda Easy and Lounge. A 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine is an old design and achieves only 51 kW and 102 Nm. It’s installed only in the Panda Pop.

A 1.3-litre turbo-diesel, gives you only 55 kilowatts, but its torque is a strong 190 Nm that arrives at only 1500 rpm. 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 Dualogic version of that tranny in the Easy, Dualogic is standard in the Trekking.

Infotainment

Even the lowest model 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.

Safety

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.

Driving

Performance from the 1.2-litre petrol engine in the low-cost model is adequate rather than exciting, but it’s willing enough and many will be satisfied with it. The happy little twin-cylinder engine is one of our favourites because it has a great note and just loves big revs in a very Italian manner. As a bonus, this is one of the world’s cleanest engines, emitting less than 100 grams of CO2 on the official driving cycle.

The pick of the bunch is the 1.3-litre turbo-diesel in the Trekking. After minimal turbo lag it gives excellent acceleration that makes for safe overtaking. Ride comfort is good though there’s a fair bit of road roar on coarse-chip surfaces. Handling is safe and secure, with these little cars able to hold onto the road at speeds much higher than those likely to be attempted by most owners.