Fiat Panda review

  • New Fiat city car tested
  • Rival to Hyundai i10 and VW Up
  • On sale February from £8500 (est)
The new Fiat Panda city car is a model that tries to build on the success of its predecessors without, on the face of it, doing anything radically different.

That's to say that it gains a little interior space and further practicality, without trying to trade too much on style. After all, 6.4 million Pandas have been sold over the past 31 years.

The wheelbase remains unchanged from the old car's, at 2300mm, but the body is 114mm longer, 11mm taller and 65mm wider than before. That makes the Panda larger than the new VW Up, but a little shorter than a Hyundai i10. The new shape is also more aerodynamic, although that’s not immediately obvious. This remains a car that trades on practicality rather than the trendy looks employed by the Up.

The suspension remains the same as before, but it’s been heavily revised in a bid, Fiat says, to reduce understeer and improve feel through the wheel.

The petrol engine options are a 68bhp 1.2-litre, 120g/km four-cylinder (likely to be the best-seller), and two sub-100g/km versions of the Twinair two-cylinder motor (a normally aspirated 64bhp unit, yet to be confirmed for the UK, and a turbocharged one with 85bhp). There’s also a 74bhp 1.3-litre turbodiesel. A four-wheel-drive variant will follow in the second half of 2012.

Fiat has yet to confirm pricing and specs, but expect a three-tier line-up – probably Pop, Easy and Lounge – starting from around £8500. The entry-level model is unlikely to have air-con, though, so we’d expect to pay around £9000 for the cheapest acceptable edition.

What’s it like to drive? The turbocharged Twinair edition pulls strongly from around 1800rpm and then, as with the same engine in the Fiat 500, requests that you change up a gear at around 3300rpm. This doesn’t slow progress too much, and it clearly does its bit for fuel economy, but it does keep you in a rev range where the Twinair’s note is more gruff than characterful.

This isn’t a problem in the four-cylinder, 1.25-litre petrol model. It clearly has a weaker bottom end, with none of the shove of the turbocharged two-pot, but it’s happier to rev beyond 4000rpm, relatively smooth with it, and quicker to fade into the background at a 60mph cruise. It’d be our preference – and the fact that it’s likely to be cheaper is a bonus.

The five-speed manual transmission is nicely positioned, high up on the fascia, and it's slick enough as long as you’re positive with your movements. The steering is extremely light (good for around town), but devoid of feel; the set-up on a VW Up offers more communication. The ride is firm, but the Panda remained generally composed on the battered streets of Naples.

What’s it like inside? A clearly defined, well-executed and practical proposition. Wisely, Fiat hasn’t tried to make the Panda any more than a little smarter inside; the slight ruggedness that’s been a part of the car’s DNA since its inception is still there.

That’s not to say it’s particularly rough around the edges – choose your interior colours carefully and you’ll end up with something that looks decidedly smarter than a Hyundai i10, for example – but there are no soft-touch finishes to be found, even in the direct line of sight from the front seats.

There are lots of cubbyholes – 14 in total – including a useful front ‘bin’ above the enormous glovebox. The front seats are comfortable enough, if a little flat, and average-sized adults will be perfectly happy in the rear. Taller passengers will struggle for kneeroom, though.

The boot has a 225-litre capacity, although you can spec a sliding rear seat that expands this to 260 litres. Fold down the rear seats flat and you’ll have 870 litres to play with; that’s decent enough for the class, but almost 100 litres shy of the maximum capacity of the VW Up and its Seat Mii and Skoda Citigo sister cars. As an option, the Panda’s front passenger seat back can be folded forwards to form a table.

Safety kit includes front airbags, head protection window bags and optional front side airbags, plus Fiat’s collision avoidance system. Similar to the set-up introduced on the Citigo, Mii and Up, this system uses radar to monitor the vehicle in front and brakes the car to a halt (from speeds up to around 20mph) if it thinks there's going to be a rear-end collision.

Should I buy one? The new Panda certainly merits consideration – providing Fiat gets its UK pricing right. It has plenty of practical ability for those more interested in a car that can cope with everyday life than one designed to look good on the High Street. It’s not quite as well finished as an Up, and some of that car’s ‘baby jewel’ quality is missing, but the Panda could end up being all the more useful because of it.

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