REVIEW DATE: 20 Sep 2007
You should certainly seriously consider buying Fiat's excellent Panda, says Andy Enright. Just don't go for the basic 1.1-litre version.
There's certainly a law of diminishing returns that applies to most vehicle ranges. You get the biggest bang for your buck at the entry level, and the manufacturers often take a financial hit on stripped-out ecobasic models, relying on customers to be seduced by more expensive versions that pack in more electronic goodies. Working on this logic, the Fiat Panda 1.1-litre ought to be the pick of the bunch. Unfortunately it doesn't quite pan out like that.
What's not commonly appreciated is that many electronic features found in more expensive models are present in cheaper cars. They just haven't been switched on. Other manufacturers create hierarchies in their engine line ups merely by coding an engine control unit to produce more or less power. Bingo, you have a 180bhp version of a 150bhp turbocharged engine that the maker can then charge an additional thousand pounds or so for at no additional cost. The buying power of the big manufacturers means that they can negotiate deals on things like stereo equipment from suppliers at ridiculous rates. One senior executive confided that the unit cost cassette decks plumbed in as standard on his company's wares was more than the optional CD system for which they could charge an additional £300.
Spend long enough in this industry and you'll come to the conclusion that spending as little as possible on the trimmings is the way forward but manufacturers occasionally get their sums wrong. It looks as if this might be the case with Fiat's Panda. Offered in 1.1-litre Active trim, this model sits way too close to the very impressive 1.2-litre Dynamic to even be worthy of consideration. But wait a minute - aren't we falling into our own trap of being 'upsold' to a more expensive and profitable model? Forget about that for a minute. It's all about the driving experience.
The 1.1-litre car is not only a fair amount slower than the 1.2-litre model but it's also dirtier and less economical. What price do you put on safety? The 1.1-litre car does without the Dynamic's anti lock brakes with brake assist and you may well rue the consequences of your economy on a typically icy British December morning. It's rare that we go out of our way to dissuade you from a given product and taken in isolation, the Panda 1.1-litre Active is a very competent product, but give Fiat a few extra pounds and you'll be rewarded with a far superior car in the shape of the 1.2-litre Dynamic. Only the most cash-strapped should consider the 1.1-litre model and even then an ex-demonstrator 1.2-litre car would be a more desirable proposition.
"Despite its competent all round showing, the Panda 1.1-litre Active is something of a false economy"
If you want to improve fuel consumption and reduce emissions, then the 'ECO' version of this car is worth a look. It returns just 119g/km of CO2 and will manage 42.8 mpg in the urban cycle, 68.3 mpg extra urban and 56.5 mpg combined. Bear in mind that the CO2 reductions see a reduction of the VED tax band from C to B, so there's an immediate tax saving of £85 to owners.
Whichever Panda you opt for, Fiat have gone to great lengths to instil a big car feel in the Panda and the amount of soundproofing pays dividends. Fiat claim the Panda is the only car in its class to have 99 per cent of its interior surface lined, and this certainly helps both the perception of quality and noise suppression. The Panda will pull from low speeds cleanly and the gearshift is probably the best in the citycar class. The clutch feels like a well engineered item as well, being progressive in its action, making stop/go progress easy to manage. The 'City' button takes all the weight out of the steering system and makes three point turns an exercise in effortless wheel twirling.
The cabin is very well finished with a good deal of space but there is a caveat. If you're over six feet tall, do not order the Panda with the SkyDome sunroof as it eats into headroom quite drastically. What's more, the sunroof surround is quite pronounced and features a definite ridge that you taller occupants easily and painfully clout their heads against. Space in the back of the Panda is a mixed bag, the car being wider and taller than many rivals but without a great deal of legroom. Still, Fiat can only do so much with a car that measures just 3.54m from nose to tail. Luggage space is surprisingly good, and the hatchback is both wide and tall and there's no intrusion from the rear light clusters although the rear wheel arches limit ultimate carrying capacity somewhat.
Despite their ongoing efforts to convince us that they can build a wide and varied model range, it's an inescapable fact that Fiat are still largely associated with tiny citycars. From the diminutive Topolino through models like the 500, Uno and Cinquecento, Fiat have proved masters at making tiny cars with enormous appeal. Originally introduced in 1980 and still produced in Italy until September 2003, the Panda has been one of Fiat's more enduring successes, notching up over four and a half million sales.
It didn't have the easiest start to life. Originally slated to be called the Gingo, it seems Renault have done Fiat a huge favour by insisting they ditch this awful moniker because it sounded too similar to their Twingo - a car that competes for the same market share. Quite why Fiat wanted to ditch the Panda name is a little baffling as it's still remembered by most as a car that was inexpensive, rugged and ahead of its time; qualities you'd think Fiat would like to associate their latest offering with.
Although the Panda was last sold in the UK in 1995, it retains a strong identity and this will help kick start sales of the latest car. Unlike some of Fiat's recent offerings that have featured rather 'challenging' styling, the design of the Panda is straightforward, and appealing. It does feature a few stylish touches however, including the profile of the glazed area that arches back to a neat quarter window that in turn butts up against an enormous vertical rear light cluster. The Panda also features well-defined 'hips' that taper forward and integrate with the front wheelarch and headlight areas very slickly. In being able to integrate a good deal of stylish features without the car looking bitty, the designers should be applauded. Originally designed by Bertone and finished with the help of Fiat's in-house design staff, the achievement is all the more laudable for the fact that the Panda is a five-door car. It's often the case that such small cars look great with three doors but as soon as the stylists try to cram five doors into a short body length, the cohesiveness of the lines go out of the window. Not so with the Panda.
Structural solidity is the first factor in this equation and the Panda features body structures that at first cushion impact and then direct energy away from the rigid passenger compartment. It's also the first car in this class to offer no fewer than six airbags as standard on some models. You can choose no fewer than six airbags if you wish, although driver and passenger airbags are standard on this model.
Despite it's competent all round showing, the Panda 1.1-litre Active is something of a false economy. The better performance, economy, safety provision, residual value, equipment and all round driveability of the 1.2-litre car makes it easily worth the premium charged. Try the two of them and you'll see what we mean.
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