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Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir (2013) long-term test review

Published: 23 October 2013

Month 6: goodbye to CAR's long-term Fiat Panda

The gut-wrenching sound of rending metal brought on by an unsatisfactory skirmish with a heavily-armoured octogenarian aside, there have been three key characteristics to Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir 85hp Lounge tenureship, the memory of which will kinda linger…

The first is the extraordinary discovery that, when the time comes for an update to the clip-on TomTom atop the dashboard, a replacement will actually arrive at your door in the bulging briefcase of no lesser figure than the UK Press and Public Relations boss of Fiat himself.

Sadly, the man in question was unceremoniously ousted by the organisation shortly thereafter. However, assuming Panda sales match Fiat’s aspirations, I can’t help feeling that his successor will not only be an extremely busy man, but will also require a truly gargantuan briefcase.

With the Panda now the correct shape again and back in the fold for just long enough to whip out the white arrivederci hankie (I’m still waiting for Fiat to tell me the real-world cost of getting this £11,250 machine back on its feet) it only takes a couple of hundred yards of pottering to have characteristics two and three reinforced.

For those of you yet to sample Fiat’s Twin Air engine, I cannot stress strongly enough how utterly this busy powerplant dominates the driving experience. Nor can I stress strongly enough the impossibility of achieving anything remotely approaching the quoted 67.3mpg average fuel consumption.

Perhaps the unit is undone by its very eagerness. Thus armed, the Panda thrums off the line like a yo-yo suddenly liberated at the bottom of its travel. Maintaining healthy momentum shortly thereafter, though, is only achieved by crushing your right foot to the firewall and leaving it there.

The upshot, despite a distinct absence of lead in the missus’s foot (that quota being already entirely allocated to the tongue) is that we’ve recorded an average consumption around 30mpg less than that quoted; closing in on a miserable 50%. Time, surely, for all new cars to be independently assessed through real-world driving before going on sale. Hybrids; stand by your beds…
Such issues aside, the Panda’s a pleasant drive. It rides particularly well for one so short in the wheelbase, steers perfectly accurately and, despite the fears of colleagues that, when pushed, it might ape the one-legged cornering characteristics of Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, handles tidily.

Indeed, save for the madness of key fob-only tailgate access (does Fiat expect the whole car to last no longer than the fob battery?) the missus will somewhat miss it. Due to the Panda’s third dominant characteristic, however, my tears goodbye are more of the order crocodylus. Sorry, but I just cannot get on with that interior…

Never mind that a gently rabid ‘squircle’ obsession even finds this ugliest of shapes etched into an already round steering wheel rim, to disconcerting ocular effect… Never mind that the driver’s instrument binnacle is the most hideous and illegible I have yet to encounter in any car of any period to date… Never mind that the rim of the dash storage bin is sharp enough to mete out punishment fit for a Saudi pickpocket as you reach for the Jelly Babies… Truth is, with no reach adjust to the steering and a seat base front cushion design modelled on a dead hippo, I just cannot get comfortable behind the helm.

A neighbour drives a tidy, custard yellow specimen of the previous generation car and I have to say I find it far better looking, inside and out; the style-free styling and entirely legible instrument binnacle being singled out for special merit.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Month 5 running a Fiat Panda: the Panda stands up well to a careless shunt

There’s a sublime episode of Father Ted in which he and Dougal attempt to tap out the smallest of dings on a car donated for a raffle prize. Of course, being Ted and Dougal, they end up flaying the whole thing into an exquisitely and entirely delaminated construct.

Despite not being entirely convinced by the Panda’s ‘squircle’-infested styling, I’m fairly certain that little positive rectification would be achieved by similarly attacking it with a large lump of metal. Though someone had other ideas because – alas – the poor Panda has been subjected to a savage and unsolicited assault by a Blue Rinse Biddie-aimed battering-ram shaped much like a Volkswagen Polo.

Minding my own business one cheery, I-am-bloody-NOT-listening-to-Tony-Blackburn-so-it’ll-have-to-be-Radio-4 Saturday afternoon, I tailed said Polo into a garden centre car park, whereupon it exited, stage left. I was just considering where to park up when the VW reappeared, at ramming speed, on my port bow.

There was to be no windscreen-cracking, cursing co-pilot-accompanied barrel-rolling here, however. It was more like a low impact-speed Lambada, the cars thrust together in grinding embrace, pirouetting through a graunching, graceless 90-degree  before coming to a standstill. No one was hurt, and no airbags were deployed in the pile-up. Almost a pity, that; let me explain.

Years ago, Saab hosted an ice-driving time trial for a motley crew of international hacks. Happily, the British team’s chances were vastly improved (as he himself pointed out) by the presence of the most pompous, obnoxious Frenchman I have ever met. Fat cigar protruding from fat head, he insisted on going first. 

Ahhh, the collective power of thought. Willed into mishap by the combined might of miffed English minds, he never made it round the first bend. He assaulted the adjacent snow bank with sufficient vim to set off the airbag, which duly smeared myriad chunks of red-hot Monte Cristo all over his smug chops. No Englishman dodged the gentle indignity of having just a whiff of wee escape into his smalls that afternoon. Ever since, I’ve wondered what an airbag in the face must feel like.

Anyway, although the Polo pilot (somewhat ironically hunting for the hospital next door, it transpired) was sufficiently shaken, she also proved sufficiently compos mentis not to admit liability. The VW certainly bested the Fiat, pushing the whole front suspension assembly backwards far enough to jam the tyre solidly against the rear of the wheel arch, making it undriveable.

For only the second time in my life I came to experience the three most disheartening consequences of an injury-free accident: the appalling, extended ‘baaaang’ of crumpling metal served with a garnish of tinkling trim; the sudden metamorphosis of man’s only freedom into an immoveable hunk of costly junk and the dread, out-of-cigarettes wait for the rescue services.

The AA was, of course, superb. Until it wasn’t. Some two hours after the quoted deadline had expired, precisely the low-loader I’d suggested would be useless lumbered up. Moving at the speed of lard, the operative first attempted to drive the Panda (wince) before deploying every plastic wedge in his armoury to painstakingly scrape it aboard.

My last stogie long since smoked and a bottle of Famous Grouse now positively bellowing for attention from my larder, it… took… an… eternity. And to add insult to lack of injury, the AA operative even stopped on the way home to buy himself something to eat.

And the lessons to be learned from this sorry tale? Take sandwiches and a good book everywhere; don’t bite the nice AA man; and never, ever build a hospital next door to a garden centre.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Month 4 running a Fiat Panda: build quality, driving position, and a brush with the law

The missus complains that the gear lever gaiter keeps popping loose and flapping about like the daftest of warm leatherette fashion show excesses draped over the Twiglet-frail frame of a catwalk model. Presumably she engages reverse gear with a level of ferocity matched only by the backhand administered when I swear in front of the children. Because it’s never happened to me.

What has happened to me, however, is that I have now become entirely fed up with the Panda’s driving position. I could live more readily with knees for earrings (courtesy of the lack of helm reach adjustment) if the seat was remotely comfortable. The missus thinks I’ve come over all Princess-and-pea, but the over-bolstered front of the seat base is right up there with the Italian hotel bedroom pillow in the comfort stakes. I can only assume the nitwit responsible used to work for Chobham, because the bloody thing’s bullet-proof; no amount of anatomical pressure will put so much as a dent in it.

On a breezier note, smearing home from the airport recently – late, pedals a blur – the Panda spared me three points. After some weapons-grade shoe staring, the PC dismissed me with a flea in the ear but the fivers still snug. They wouldn’t have looked so kindly on a 5-series.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Month 3 running a Fiat Panda: fuel economy drops as the engine's fun factor increases

'Two cylinders?!… Ahahahahaha… Oh My Giddy Aunt!’ Thus spake, to date, every single passenger who gives a plucked canary about cars (and the missus imports many who do not) on experiencing Fiat’s 875cc TwinAir for the first time. Hilariously eager from a standstill, the Panda thrums off the line like an escaped aircraft propeller. It may require 11.2 seconds to amble to 62mph, but 30mph comes up in less time than it takes to apologise to the dog for yet another dent in the cranium.

Once that chuckle-inducing surge is spent, however, life with the in-line twin becomes somewhat more complicated. Sadly, Hitchcock stood a better chance of tonsil-hockey with Tippi Hedren than any sentient mortal has of matching Fiat’s claimed average fuel consumption of 67.3mpg.

There are two reasons for this; one wholesome, the other gruesome. As previously discussed, the engine entirely defines the Panda driving experience, dominating the senses (taste excluded unless you’re properly deranged) and rewarding the lead-foot lummox to the extent that no TwinAir club member I’ve encountered can resist hooning everywhere.

Indeed, the 38mpg my family manages has now dropped ever further south to a paltry 36.7mpg this month, courtesy entirely of the relentless leathering the Panda received by all who sampled it, invariably at a grin, on our Our Cars mass outing to Rockingham last month.

Obey the dashboard nanny gearshift prompt, on the other hand, and the revs will drop away to the point whereby each individual combustion chamber explosion is readily discernible, and progress then becomes akin to sitting atop a washing machine full of wet towels on the spin cycle. There are many who will attest to the pleasure derived from this sensation in the privacy of their own homes, but few who feel it entirely appropriate when driving.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant


Month 2 running a Fiat Panda: gripes with the Panda's ergonomics

Having no interest in watching the unspeakable pursue the uneatable, I wasn’t around when the hunting picture, right, was taken. However, via the medium of a particularly bad hat, it does remind me just how markedly one’s automotive agenda metamorphoses with age. After 45 it’s impossible to collapse into a comfy chair without an accompanying grunt of gratitude. Pass 65 and you can never again, I’m told, trust a fart. And by the time 80 looms, the simple act of climbing in and out of a car can take on the complexities of a military exercise…

So I’m pleased to report that the octogenarians in my family, one of whom can look Ben P right in the eye, find the Panda an ergonomic delight when it comes to access, seat comfort and egress. Sadly, though, despite the fact that the missus is relentlessly content with the car, I just can’t get on with the driving position. I find the absence of steering reach adjustment necessitates an over-familiarity with the dashboard which leaves me with knees for earrings. As with many small cars, matters are made worse by clutch foot space inadequate for all footwear save the ballet pump. Lob in a seat base front that bullies rather than cossets the back of my thighs and I’m struggling to ignore the position sufficiently to enjoy the drive.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant 


Month 1 running a Fiat Panda: introducing CAR's new Panda TwinAir

Though, indeed, a beautifully judged homage to the 1936 Topolino, I struggle with Fiat’s current 500 for two reasons. Firstly, it does the same not particularly neat trick as Ford’s first Ka managed on Fiesta underpinnings, to wit: sacrificing a potting shed of space in the interests of style. And, secondly, the quality of the couture is not reflected in the interior, wherein the ocular confluence of instrument binnacle and steering wheel is relentlessly uncomfortable, as are the seats, which always make me feel as if I’m being snacked on by a giant glove puppet.

All of which, for me, makes the no-nonsense Panda a far more practical small car proposition. Which is just as well since, having dished out all the plush, family-sized long-termers to brattage-free bachelors, my masters obviously thought it would be entirely humorous (remember the Soul Burner? Ahahahahaha…) to equip this family of four with a car sufficiently compact to guarantee that the only way the dog will be joining us on any excursion is if I tie its lead to the door handle and exceed 15mph in short bursts only.

Size considerations aside (and the dog will find out soon enough), my only immediate concern is over styling. I enjoy the frill-free design of this machine’s predecessor enormously, but – no Panda virgin since this is one of the two gentlemen we recently brought together in Verona – I’m already on record as considering this latest offering decidedly over-‘squircled’.

Where nostalgia has been sparingly applied to Fiat’s 500 (most notably in the form of a chrome-plated tailgate handle recalling the original’s ‘bicycle saddle’-shaped numberplate light holder and, to the front, via circular headlamps and the trademark ‘whisker and logo’ badging), the Panda is so burdened with its own retro motif that I’m surprised to find the wheels have remained entirely round.
No matter, because that all-pervasive styling merely distracts from an interior that, classily combining colour and piano black, is infinitely superior to that of this Panda’s predecessor. The minor glitches identified in northern Italy remain, though; overt glare from the instrument binnacle Perspex, an unpleasantly sharp rim to the useful dashboard bin and, sadly, a front seat that’s not half as comfortable as I remember.

Handsomely equipped with standard fit kit, this is the £11,250 Lounge specification Panda TwinAir 85hp, the price bumped up to £12,660 through the addition of diverse, reasonably priced titbits, the most expensive and essential being £315 worth of ESP and Hill Holder, and £400 well spent on Fiat’s Blue&Me TomTom2 LIVE infotainment system.

Though this ingenious, 875cc, twin-pot powerplant threatens 67.3mpg, I have a nasty feeling we’re never going to register anything like that, simply because it’s such a hoot to hoon. A quoted 0-62mph time of 11.2 seconds does scant justice to the engine’s gruff, breathy eagerness. In truth, though, a claimed maximum 107lb ft of torque at only 1900rpm feels a tad disingenuous since the engine doesn’t start to show proper interest in proceedings until nearer 3000rpm, plenty of stick stirring then being required to compensate for what feels like a fairly narrow power band.

Having left home in a Civic and returned in a Panda, I’ll spurn snap judgement over ride and handling and wait until we’re better acquainted. I do, however, recall giving the Panda the nod over VW’s Up in the undercarriage and steering department, so I’m gently surprised that first impressions find the Panda a tad eager to understeer and its ride somewhat popplesome on Mudfordshire byways.
Only time will tell if a growing family of four and a large dog can rub along harmoniously with a Fiat Panda. In the dog’s case, though, I suspect that just one journey will be time enough…

By Anthony ffrench-Constant

By CAR's road test team

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