This is Fiat’s third-generation Panda, which goes on UK sale in February 2012. Fiat has buffed up interior quality and features over the outgoing car’s, and plumbed in the TwinAir two-cylinder turbo engine, which was the version we drove. This being a city car and us being CAR magazine, we perversely took the Panda as far from its natural habitat as possible, flogging it down an autostrada at 100mph, before flinging it through hairpins en route to a Dolomite resort.
A city car on motorway and mountains? Surely a disaster…
Blasting along Italy’s A22 at a ridiculous 90-100mph, in a game of v-max chicken comfortably won by the man from the Daily Telegraph, proved a revelation. The Panda’s primary ride is excellent: thanks to its long-travel suspension, the body flows up and down genteelly over crests, and tarmac noise and deflections are suppressed nicely. I was struck by the air of civility: the cabin is quiet enough to have a conversation, even at such speed. Yes, wind noise rises noticeably above 75mph due to the Panda’s trademark bluff front end and massive side mirrors, and there's always the thrummy hum of the TwinAir burbling away at 4000revs at 95mph, but the cabin feels a high-quality, sophisticated environment – not a phrase that automatically springs to mind with a Fiat.
The steering has a big car-feel: it’s meatier than you'd expect from a city car, positive and deliberate. Yes there’s Fiat’s customary ‘city’ parking button to give extra assistance if you delight in one-finger maneouvres, but the variable gearing is nicely judged for in town or out. The brakes are another quality element: the thick, reassuring plastic pedal has a nice action, and it eagerly lops off speed. Brake really hard and this lightweight will wobble on its tippy toes.
What about the award-winning TwinAir engine?
It’s a peach! If Maserati made a two-pot, it would be this, with its surprisingly bassy thrum and loads of urge. Standstill to 62mph takes 11.2seconds, which isn’t bad for 875cc and 84bhp. On the climb into the resort, with lots of hairpins, you could keep the car in third and ride the surge from about 1800-4000rpm.
Drive is sent to the front wheels via a five-speed manual gearbox, which is functional rather than tactile and precise. Occasionally the electronic shift indicator sells you a pup as it requests a shift from third to fourth, dumping the engine in a turbo flat spot just below the torque curve (which peaks at 107lb ft). But this engine is so energetic and tractable, it can pull itself out of most predicaments. It’s so loud and eager, it sounds like it's in the footwell – which might excite motoring journalists over a weekend but could have punters demanding more soundproofing.
I can't think of many 84bhp engines that have you pinning the throttle in second, because you want to hear its percussive symphony on the firewall.
Overtaking involves finding a sizeable gap in the traffic, wringing out second gear and most of third, but acceleration is pretty spritely for an 875cc car. Naturally, the mountainous geography and such no-holds barred driving meant punishing fuel consumption: the trip computer read 8.2 litres/100km – or 34.4mpg, compared with the 67.2mpg official figure.
What else stands out about the Panda?
The third-gen car is bigger than the outgoing car, but that translates into a bit more cabin space and a useful-sized boot: now it can swallow an airline carry-on and a big sports bag with room to spare. A six-footer sitting behind himself will have to splay knees to fit in the rear, but it’s fine for kids or short journeys.
The Panda’s high-set driving position remains, and the outboard seats help you look down to maneouvre without kerbing danger. Plus you can judge how close you are to the Armco out the corner of your eye, should you be ragging your Panda to a ski resort. Two three-point turns on narrow icy slopes showed the Panda hasn’t lost its urban usefulness: bear it in mind if you frequently get lost in tight surroundings.
Downsides? The clutch action is a bit ponderous. And the Panda – shod on 175/65 R14 Continental Winter Contacts for this trip – unsurprisingly understeered on some of the tighter, faster turns. My left knee also ached a bit, as the wheelarch cuts foot space, but that's the price you pay for usable city car dimensions. And the shiny black, brick-sized stereo looks like it's finished in ’30s Bakelite, which will appeal to grannies.
The stereo is neatly integrated with the Tom-tom sat-nav though, which dovetails with your ‘phone and MP3 player, as well as overlaying your speed with the limit of the road you’re on. Fiat says this equipment will be available as part of a £400 Techno pack, which includes the Tom-tom unit and a year's subsciption to its services. Such features add to the Panda’s big car quality feel.
The same-again styling – Mk2 Panda overlaid with curvier details – lulled me into a false sense of ambivalence. Fiat’s new Panda rides well, steers well, and can come with a fantastic two-pot engine. I haven't enjoyed driving a small car this much since the Skoda Yeti was launched in 2009: it’s an absolute joy. And with the Volkswagen Up also on the market, city car customers have never had it so good.