Our cars: Fiat Panda farewell
My very first car was a bright red Fiat Cinquecento. I learned to drive in it, passed my test in it and, rather foolishly, managed to crash it.
So, there was a certain amount of nostalgia last summer when I found out I'd be running the Cinquecento's modern-day equivalent– a bright red Fiat Panda.
Choosing which version to go for wasn't easy. The diesel and two-cylinder petrol models promised average economy of 60mpg+, but were quite a bit pricier than the entry-level 1.2 petrol. That's why I eventually settled on a cheapest engine in entry-level Pop trim.
I was well aware that by keeping things cheap I'd have to do without air-conditioning, alloys and remote locking. However, several other omissions weren't so easy to spot in the brochure. There was no locking petrol cap, for example, and nor was there a glovebox to keep my valuables out of sight. Even rear head restraints (which my car did have) were a £70 option. I wouldn't have dreamt of putting anyone in the back without these fitted.
Cheekily, Fiat also charged extra for any colour other than white, and since I didn't fancy that, £290 had to be found for non-metallic Cancan Red. I also added split-folding rear seats (£50) to help get around the Panda's pokey boot. Bluetooth pushed up the price by a further £390 (£265 for the Blue&Me system and £125 controls on the steering wheel).
The Bluetooth system was a bit of a pain to use, mainly due to the tiny display on the instrument panel; it took me ages to scroll through my phone contacts every time I wanted to call someone.
The voice control feature got around this problem to some extent – I simply had to press a button on the steering wheel, say 'call' followed by the name of the person in my phone's address book – but it didn't always understand what I was saying. Annoyingly, too, the 'voice' button was positioned too close to the edge of the steering wheel – I often caught it with the palm of my hand when going round corners.
Still, on the plus side, the system linked perfectly with my iPhone 5, allowing me to play my music on the move. I was worried it wouldn't, because I've have had problems linking the phone with far more expensive cars, after Apple annoyingly changing to a new-style 'Lightning' connector.
Most city cars are pretty basic inside, and while the Panda's cabin could hardly be described as plush, there were a few touches to liven things up. Everywhere you looked you saw what Fiat calls 'squircles' – a square shape with rounded corners. The dials, the steering wheel hub, the ventilation and radio controls – even the handbrake – all carried this theme.
The dashboard and the insides door inserts were also embossed with thousands of tiny 'Panda' logos, and because of all this cheeriness it never really bothered me that the plastics themselves were pretty low-rent.
Importantly, too, these little style touches didn't come at the expense of any functionality; I found the Panda's dashboard really straightforward to use and had no issues reading the dials and displays.
Some of the What Car? staff struggled with the Panda's sit-up-and-beg driving position and firm seats, but I actually found it pretty easy to get comfortable – although a height-adjustable seat (another option at £50) would've made life even easier.
I rarely used the back seats to carry people, so you might imagine the Panda's five-door practicality was wasted on me. In fact, the rear doors came in very handy, because they allowed me to easily slide my golf clubs across the back seats.
Why didn't I just put them in the boot? Well, like most city cars the Panda's load bay is pretty narrow, so I'd have had to drop the rear seats each time and lie the clubs in lengthways.
One thing's for sure: I definitely picked the right engine. The 1.2-litre petrol had only 68bhp, but it loved to be revved and suited to Panda's cheeky character perfectly. True, it wasn't as flexible as some of the three-cylinder engines in the Panda's rivals (such as the VW Up), but it made up for that by being smoother – one of the benefits of it having four cylinders.
The brochure might say it's a lot less efficient than the 0.9 Twinair model, but our True MPG team found that the cheaper 1.2 actually manages more miles to the gallon (43.1mpg plays 34.3mpg) in real-world driving. Despite my cross-town commutes in rush hour traffic, my car still managed to average a reasonable 42.1mpg over the year.
The Panda was certainly most at home in urban areas, where its light steering and dinky dimensions combined to make it easy to manoeuvre. Its supple suspension and high-walled tyres took the sting out of potholes and speed bumps, and even the few motorway journeys I made weren't too unpleasant – although the Panda didn't feel as settled at 70mph as our long-term VW Up, and tended to be tossed around in windy conditions.
I also got on well with the gearchange. The lever was positioned high on the dash, so it was each to reach, and the shift itself was smooth and accurate.
Fiat's reliability record isn't spectacular according to the most recent What Car? Reliability Survey (it finished 19th out of 36 manufacturers). Sure enough, my Panda did have a couple of issues, although both were minor – the alternator belt started slipping and the driver's door handle came away in my hand when I pulled it.
The work was done by Wilsons of Epsom, and paid for by the three-year Fiat warranty. However, I was charged £20 for a 'courtesy' car while the faults were being fixed. To make matters worse, I wasn't told about the charge until I arrived, so had little choice but to pay it. Pretty cheeky, I reckon.
The past 12 months have certainly convinced me that Fiat still knows how to build a fine city car – it's just a shame the company's pricing strategy isn't a bit more competitive. Cars such as the Seat Mii, Skoda Citigo and VW Up aren't that far ahead in most areas, but they're easier to recommend because they're that bit cheaper to buy. Given that they're also cheaper to run and are predicted to hold on to their value for longer, that's impossible to ignore.
By Will Nightingale