REVIEW DATE: 20 Sep 2007
Does the top of the range 2WD Fiat Panda Eleganza have what it takes to seriously worry the Opposition? Steve Ghosley checks it out.
The European Car Of The Year accolade is a heavy responsibility to shoulder especially when the model is a basic citycar like the Fiat Panda. This type of car is built for one purpose and one alone - to transport people about town quickly, cheaply and usually with minimal creature comforts. So, it would seem that the plush Fiat Panda Eleganza we look at here runs counter to this definition.
The price of around £9,000 for the Eleganza does seem a little steep at first sight but when you consider that it comes with features such as anti lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, a trip computer and twin front airbags, it seems fair enough. Add dual drive electric power steering, body coloured bumpers, electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, alloy wheels, radio/CD player, remote central locking, climate control, a split/folding rear seat and longitudinal roof bars and it begins to look like a sound piece of business.
The 1.2-litre engine featured in the Panda Eleganza is one of its greatest assets. True, 60bhp is no great shakes, but when fitted to the Panda it gives it enough go to make it a good deal more versatile than many citycar rivals. It's almost as if the citycar sector can be subdivided into those models which you'd never contemplate taking a longer journey in and cars like the Panda that are well up to motorway cruising. Part of the reason for this is that the Panda 1.2 features a four-cylinder engine, whereas many of its rivals have to work a three-cylinder unit that much harder to keep pace. At typical motorway speeds, the engine is a little vocal but not too intrusive and wind and road noise are well suppressed.
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 Eleganza model brings a touch of class as well as sophistication to the range."
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, especially as the Eleganza comes with the added practicality of the split/fold rear seat. 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.
Although the Panda was last sold in the UK in 1995, it retains a strong identity and loyal customer base. 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. You can choose no fewer than six airbags if you wish, although driver and passenger airbags are standard on the Eleganza model. You'll find £25,000 executive cars that will require you to tick the options box for some of these features, so to find them in an £8,000 citycar is a testament to Fiat's commitment to safety.
The Fiat Panda Eleganza is a very convincing proposition as an elegantly appointed citycar. The basic Panda was always going to be a winner, but the Eleganza model brings a touch of class as well as sophistication to the range and will probably find approval even in the more leafy postal districts of South West One.
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