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Fiat Panda review (2012 onwards)
Summary: the Panda city car has been hugely successful for Fiat - so no wonder the third-generation doesn't mess too much with the existing formula...
We like: functional yet stylish, economical engines, comfortable
We don't like: equipment levels and cost remain to be confirmed, TwinAir refinement
The Fiat Panda is synonymous with the city car segment. When the second-generation version arrived in 2003 it re-established Fiat's reputation as a builder of smart small cars - not necessarily the best on the market but an intelligent blend of desirable attributes including cost, efficiency and functional design.
Between this and the first generation, Fiat has sold over 6.4 million examples of the Panda, and when the time came to design a new one it took the firm decision that it wasn't going to mess about with the current formula too much.
Often when a carmaker does this we'd deride them for being too conservative, but in this instance Fiat has taken an already well thought-out product and updated it in a manner that's intended to add value without any unnecessary dilution of the core experience.
To this end, the third generation car looks similar, but is now slightly larger, with more rounded corners for a soft but strong appearance; the engine line up continues to offer a good cost to efficiency balance; and the interior gains in style and quality while also becoming more practical.
A re-invigorated version of Fiat's 69hp 1.2-litre petrol is joined by the equally familiar 75hp 1.3 Multijet turbodiesel. New to the Panda, however, is the 0.9-litre two-cylinder TwinAir turbo petrol with 85hp; a non-turbo 65hp version is also offered, though it's not yet confirmed for the UK.
For our Italian launch drive we chose the TwinAir turbo - for although it will be amongst the most expensive options when the Panda goes on sale in the UK next year, by its very nature this engine is most likely to show up any issues with refinement and drivability.
The turbo gives it good initial response and a certain keenness to get on with things, but lacks the through the rev range smoothness of a conventional four cylinder. It also falls away quite quickly when you come off the throttle - to the point where we found ourselves downshifting into first at times around town.
It is rather raucous when wound up, too, and Fiat hasn't completely killed the in cabin vibrations and resonances that are such a challenge to a two-cylinder configuration. It certainly gives the car character - but we remain unconvinced it's worth the additional expense.
Ride and Handling
Fiat says revisions to the suspension mean the front-wheel drive version of the new Panda should drive better than before, with an emphasis on reduced body roll in the corners despite improved ride comfort, aided by a modest 5 per cent increase in torsional stiffness. A 4x4 is set to follow later.
In practice the Panda is indeed comfortable. Even over some genuinely terrible road surfaces it never actually became jarring, and while it certainly woggled around quite a bit it remained controlled and generally engaging.
In fact, the entire car has an endearing kind of willingness - the steering is responsive, and the Panda happy to dart about, clearly announcing that there are limits but none-the-less, give it a chance and it will do its best. You quickly come to regard it with affection.
However, the odd sproinging noise from the suspension and a slightly notchy gearshift doesn't quite inspire the same depth of engineering confidence as the Volkswagen Up! and its siblings.
The new Panda is built in Italy rather than Poland, but with €100m invested in the Italian factory hopefully this won't compromise the dependable level of reliability established by its predecessor.
Fiat has really gone with a theme on the inside - the squircle. No kidding, this is a square with rounded corners, and you'll find the shape all over the cabin, including the instrument cluster, seat backs, steering wheel, gearlever and oddly over-emphasised handbrake.
Actually, we approve, because it gives the Panda's interior a real sense of cohesive identity. The plastics are generally pretty decent, too, and we love the dash and door finish that's grained with the letters P, A, N, D, A - promoting Fiat's pride in this particular product.
Practically speaking there are plenty of highlights as well. These range from the simple shelf-type arrangement that replaces the glovebox in homage to the original Panda - one of 14 storage areas around the cabin, including the rigid load cover - to the stereo's deliberate aping of a games console control pad.
Beyond this you can have a sliding rear seat with the option of 50:50 or 60:40 split folding, a fold flat front passenger seat and a removable, waterproof storage box that sits neatly in the hollow of the boot. Luggage space is between 225 and 260 litres seats up and 870 litres seats down.
The Panda feels roomier than the Up! and its fellows - Fiat really making the most of the marginally increased dimensions - while the overall ambience is certainly classier than the Hyundai i10 while offering a greater level of practicality than the Kia Rio.
Forward visibility is compromised by the windscreen pillar, but improved by the Panda's characteristic third window at the back. Some people may not like the squircle feel of the gearlever and steering wheel, but we think it adds character and fun.
Economy and Safety
Like the Up! and its cohorts, the Panda will be available with a laser-guided low speed automatic braking function that's designed to prevent or reduce city centre fender benders. You can also have up to six airbags and ESP. But unlike the five-star Up! (etc) the Panda has only achieved a four-star Euro NCAP rating.
Still, it offers a wider spread of engines, and thus more choice when it comes to balancing efficiency against price and performance. Outright economy star is the MultiJet with a claimed 72.4 combined, but the TwinAir bests this for CO2 emissions, achieving as low as 95g/km instead of 104g/km.
The TwinAir turbo's claimed 67.2mpg combined is matched to range-topping performance figures: 0-62mph in 11.2 seconds and 110mph - but we've always found this engine to be thirsty if thrashed. Still, start-stop, a gearshift indicator and an 'Eco' mode are all standard.
Fiat also offers eco:Drive, an innovative software system that teaches you how to drive more efficiently very effectively. The start-stop system did experience a bit of a wobble on our car - on one occasion the re-start didn't quite fire up the car properly and we had to reset it by cutting the ignition.
The MSN Cars verdict
The Fiat Panda finds itself facing increasingly tough opposition from either end of the practical city car market - the Volkswagen Group brings the premium while the Koreans offer exceptional value with very little compromise.
We're waiting to see how the Panda's pricing is going to fit into this brave new small car world, but are pleased to report that the improvements here make an already good car even better, and the blend of space, sensible thinking and additional style mean the little Fiat deserves your close consideration.
|Need to know|
|Engines petrol||0.9, 1.2|
|Power hp||65 - 85|
|Torque lb ft||65 - 140|
|0-62mph secs||11.2 - 15.7|
|Top speed mph||99 - 110|
|Mpg combined||54.3 - 72.4|
|CO2g/km / Tax %||95 - 120 / 10 - 13|
|Ratings out of five|
|Ride & handling||***|
|MSN Cars verdict||****|
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