Fiat Panda review

imageThere’s a lot riding on Fiat’s new Panda, not least a battle of the tiddlers against the VW Up and Kia Picanto.

The phrase “Small cars, small profits” is the blunt retort credited to Edsel Ford when presented with the first proposals for the Fiesta. In the even more Lilliputian world of sub-B cars such as the Panda, or its new rivals Volkswagen’s Up or Kia’s Picanto, you need to get the production right or you can lose money on every car you sell.

Perhaps that explains why some early products in this sector were so lacklustre to drive and to own. The original Panda of 1980 was basic, but so much like automotive Lego to build that Fiat produced it in three Italian plants; Mirafiori, Desio and Tremini, and one Sicilian, Imerese, which was closed this year. In 23 years, Fiat sold 4.5 million Pandas and it achieved a sort of utilitarian cult status, although the joke was that the last examples were 40 per cent larger than the originals because the press tools were so worn.

Fiat was strangely ambivalent towards reusing that name for its 2003 replacement, which was built in Tychy, Poland. The Italian giant preferred Gingo, which Renault contested, reasoning it was too close to Twingo. So Panda stuck and the Nuova Panda won the 2004 Car of the Year title and sold just over two million in eight years.

So comes time to replace it and this time Fiat has bet on Italy, revamping its old Alfa Romeo factory at Pomigliano d’Arco near Naples. Built as part of Italian government regional policy, it produced Alfasuds from 1972 but has never made more than about 35,000 cars a year. In the last three years Fiat has completely refurbished the place at a cost of €900 million (£761.6 million), with a spanking new production line and extensive staff training. With equally spanking new labour contracts imposed as of this January, Fiat aims to have the plant smoking like the nearby Vesuvius volcano to produce 300,000 Pandas a year.

Sergio Marchionne, Fiat’s chief executive, has often talked of his company’s obligation to Italy, but this could cost him dear. Where 6,000 Polish workers at Tychy produce 450,000 cars a year at what is estimated to be a third of EU labour cost per man, 5,000 Pomigliano workers will make 300,000 Pandas a year on the most modern production line in Europe. That’s 75 cars a man per year from Poland, and 60 cars a man for Naples. In Britain, so far this year Nissan’s Tyne and Wear plant has built 445,000 cars with 5,300 staff, equating to 84 cars per man. Flawed science these ratios might be, but they might also explain why Volkswagen is producing its Up in low-wage and non-unionised Bratislava, Slovakia.

The new Panda doesn’t look a great deal different from the old model, but that’s no criticism as the old one was jaunty, tall and charming. At just under 12ft long, this version is four and a half inches longer, 1.5in wider, and 0.4in taller, with longer front and rear overhangs, but the same wheelbase. There are plastic panels front and rear to minimise parking damage and it feels more rounded than the old.

When it goes on sale this spring there will be three trim levels, four engines, seven option packages and 10 colours.

Climb in and there’s a feeling of sitting on top of it and while the seats adjust for height, you still sit quite high. The steering adjusts for rake not reach, so you have to move the chair back and forth, which eats into the rear-seat passengers’ leg space, although there is a sliding rear-seat option, which eats into the boot space but is a good bet if you’re aiming on filling the rear seats regularly. Much was made of the under-boot waterproof bin, but that only works if you delete the space saver rear wheel. At 250 litres, there’s not a lot of luggage space here and there’s also scant room for big feet in the pedal box, which brush against the overhanging dashboard.

With Neapolitan roads as badly surfaced as Britain’s, but a deal more scary to drive on, we ventured out on the small test route. Unlike its predecessor, the new Panda doesn’t feel like a small car, which is good for the cabin ambience but slightly intimidating when threading through narrow gaps. The major controls have a weight and gravitas, indicator stalks are thick and feel as if from an altogether bigger and more expensive car.

Opinions differed about the new facia, which is superficially attractive but badly affected by reflections. Piano black can look attractive, but not with all the contrasting dashboard shades and, on the ancillary and heater switches, it’s horribly plasticky. Those reflections also affect the optional TomTom satnav, which can also connect via Bluetooth to warn of traffic jams ahead, but that isn’t much cop if you can’t see the screen. A collision mitigation brake system is planned, but wasn’t available at launch.

There’s just a five-speed ’box, but there’s enough go in the Twinair two-cylinder engine to allow you to accelerate without continually changing down, although the long gap between first and second gears means you have to rev it hard to avoid dropping into the torqueless world below 2,000rpm. The gearchange is rubbery and imprecise, but it swaps ratios quickly enough. The engine sounds flat and it is difficult to judge by ear alone when to change gear. It also vibrates noticeably under 3,000rpm (far more than the sweet 1.2-litre Fire four-cylinder), which means you need to learn how to drive it, or you’ll murder the fuel economy or fizz your toenails off.

With revamped torsion-beam rear suspension and larger bushes on the semi-trailing arms, the ride should be improved and it is, but only in part. The MacPherson strut-suspended front end is more precise, with less take up on the steering and a marginally less abrupt attack to road bumps. It still feels harsh, however, yet the body rolls in corners and at times it feels like a runaway hovercraft. The diesel gives a slightly better all-round ride quality, but commensurately less agility because of the extra weight in the nose.

Electronically powered steering is a virtual carry-over from the old model and, with new software, it has a better and more linear weight, but pants with inconsistent weighting around the dead-ahead position. The brakes are strong and progressive, but the pedal could do with more feel.

Should you buy one? Tricky, especially as there’s nothing particularly new here and by increasing the Panda’s size rather than miniaturising its components, Fiat has shown a weakness – although it also raises the question of how much small size really matters in this market. And, as with all the rival tiddlers, there’s a wealth of extras Fiat needs you to buy to ensure the Panda’s profitability.

As ever, this market is one of brand identity versus price. Fiat’s track record in this highly commoditised market for cheap transport means buyers might be persuaded to pay a (small) premium for a small Fiat. It’s probably worth it: the Panda isn’t as advanced as the Up but it’s got more cheekiness, looks better and is more fun to drive.


Fiat Panda

Tested: Five-door hatchback with 875cc, parallel-twin petrol engine. Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive

Price/on sale: From £8,000/spring

Power/torque: 84bhp @ 5,500rpm and 107lb ft @ 1,900rpm

Top speed: 110mph

Acceleration: 0-62mph in 11.2sec

Fuel economy: 56.5mpg Urban/67.2mpg Combined

CO2 emissions: 99g/km

VED band: A (£0)

Verdict: Nothing radical, but cheap, cheerful and characterful approach makes it an intriguing contrast to the impressive Volkswagen Up

Telegraph rating: Four out of five stars


Volkswagen Up, from £7,995

Not the most exciting looking entry in the sector, but certainly the most technological. The new three-cylinder petrol engine dispenses with balance shafts which keep it narrow so the overall length is low, but cabin space large, particularly in the back.

Kia Picanto, from £7,995

Style-wise this South Korean tiddler is bang on the money and its little three-cylinder engine is fun and lively, but the brakes are wooden, the steering awful and the dynamics need a lot more work. Sadly it’s still the sort of micro car you buy because it’s cheap rather than because you love it.

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