Fiat Panda 2014 Review

words - Tim Britten
When it comes to the crunch, potential buyers will need to weigh up what the Fiat Panda has to offer that its many competitors don't

Fiat Panda Lounge
Road Test

What place does a kinda cute, two-cylinder five-door hatch that is barely any larger than a Volkswagen up! but can cost as much as $24,000 before on-road costs, have in Australia? Fiat’s first attempt at finding a place for its micro-size Panda in Australia presents the odd challenge – not the least of which is pricing that carries it into the bottom end of the small car class.

Fiat is tackling the overpopulated light car class with a seemingly unlikely contender: The third-generation Panda.

The little hatchback – which just happens to be Italy’s best-selling car – comes as a sort of minimally quirky sibling to the cute, retro 500 model (and the far more conventional Punto) that brings to market some interesting technology and some astoundingly impressive fuel consumption and CO2 emissions figures.

Sitting squarely in the light-car class yet intruding on small-car territory in terms of pricing, the Fiat Panda has something of the essence of a Kia Soul or
Toyota Rukus, albeit with smaller dimensions and lower pricing.

It's nothing like the original, Giugiaro-designed Panda from 1980 that looked like a paper cutout on wheels, but its appearance usually inspires humorous, rather than admiring reactions.

Parked at the kerbside next to a regular small car it looks positively tiny. And, like most other cars of its ilk, it feels particularly vulnerable when rolling down Melbourne’s Monash freeway surrounded by B-Doubles.

The reality, in this scenario, is it's probably no less vulnerable than pretty much anything else except another B-Double, but there's still a degree of added discomfort when you are being muscled around by wall-to-wall, multi-wheeled behemoths.

Powered by a long-stroke twin-cylinder turbo powerplant that is smaller than many motorcycle engines, and only 13mm longer in the body than a Volkswagen up! (its 2300mm wheelbase is actually quite a bit shorter than the 2407mm of the German micro car) the Panda takes up very little road space and consumes only small amounts of the planet's oil reserves.

The quoted 4.1L/100km for the five-speed Dualogic version is better than the manual-only Volkswagen’s 4.4L/100km and the CO2 emissions are staggeringly low at just 95g/100km. The TwinAir is in fact claimed by Fiat to be the lowest CO-emitting production car engine in the word. It also, in 2011, won the International Engine of the Year award.

Of the three engines available in the Panda – the base “Pop” version uses a 51kW/102Nm 1.2-litre four-cylinder and the “Trekking” version a 55kW/190Nm 1.3-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel, both driving a five-speed manual transmission – the 63kW/145Nm, 875cc two-cylinder TwinAir is by far the most impressive, not just for its miserly consumption figures and super-low emissions, but also for its gutsy performance on the road.

Partly because there's not a lot of weight to pull around (the Lounge weighs 990kg) but mainly because the micro-size engine punches way above its weight, the two-cylinder Panda is full of performance surprises – particularity coming off the back of a week in the sluggish Pop with its 1.2-litre FIRE four-cylinder atmo engine.

The TwinAir pulls with gusto, muscling through the five gears swiftly and ironing out the longest upgrades with barely any reference to lower gears.

The twin-cylinder characteristics are always in your face, but in a characterful, endearing way. The Panda chatters rather than revs its way to the 6500rpm redline and only demonstrates a lack of smoothness on take-off, or with low-rpm upshifts (and it would have been less intrusive if the twin-cylinder vibrations hadn't been magnified by the TomTom navigation unit rattling and shaking on top of the dash).

The TwinAir could do with a twin-clutch transmission. The Dualogic automated manual might be efficient in power delivery, but the yawning chasms in power delivery as it upshifts during acceleration are something the driver must learn to work with. The feeling was similar to that experienced in a light commercial van using an automated manual gearbox and was something of a disappointment given the endearing, perky nature of the engine.

And while the nicely palm-fitting central shifter normally provided easy shuffling around between park, reverse and drive positions, there were times when it fell into a hole as the driver attempted to shift from reverse into drive, usually resulting in a lot of revs but no forward motion. The manual-shift function – forward for a downshift, back for an upshift – worked well though.

The electric power steering is actually quite well weighted, light enough to slip into tiny parking spaces with ease, but heavy enough to feel secure out on the open road. It's not particularly fast with three turns from lock to lock but the Panda doesn’t pretend to be a sports car. It turns in well enough and the MacPherson Strut/beam axle suspension is, within reason, actually pretty absorbent. The only disconcerting thing about the Panda when it’s being thrown about a bit is the rear suspension’s tendency to come momentarily unstuck if a bump is encountered mid-corner.

An interesting aspect of the Panda's engine start-stop system is that the steering remains powered even when the engine is not running.

Panda packaging, not surprisingly, is full of compromises.

In a car this small, there’s never going to be a lot of space to throw luggage on board, or graciously invite a car-load of passengers to join you. Because the roof is higher than most others in its class, headroom is okay, but there's not a lot of shoulder room. And in the back, there's almost no point of trying to sit an adult passenger behind an adult driver, even if neither is particularly tall. The seats are comfortable, although only the top-level Lounge and Trekking versions get driver's side height adjustment.

Fiat’s Blue&Me infotainment system, which simplifies the business of connecting MP3 players and mobile phones, as well as the optional TomTom satellite navigation system, is standard on all variants. The little dash-mounted SatNav screen takes some getting accustomed to in terms of functionality, and on two of the three variants driven tended to rattle and shake when the car was on the move. And we did find it difficult, on all versions, scrolling through the trip information, which is controlled via both the central dash buttons otherwise used to adjust headlight positioning, and the menu button on the steering wheel.

The Lounge version’s upmarket interior, with its contrasting dash trim, leather-rim steering wheel and gloss black highlights looked a cut above the monotone, base Pop version. On all models, only the front passengers had the benefit of power windows.

The Panda’s boot, while it is shaped well enough, is pretty small at just 225 litres compared, for example, to 251 litres for the Volkswagen up!. The spare, too, is merely a space-saver.

The Panda's ANCAP five-star safety rating is complemented by Fiat's Low Speed Collision Mitigation system (although it’s fitted only to the Lounge model) which helps to avoid nose-to-tail crashes, as well as a full complement of six airbags and anti-whiplash front head restraints.

When it comes to the crunch, potential buyers will need to weigh up what the Fiat Panda has to offer that its many competitors don’t. At $22,500 before on-road costs, the Panda Lounge faces some pretty hot competition including Volkswagen Polo, Hyundai i20, Toyota Yaris, Holden Barina, Ford Fiesta, Skoda Fabia, Kia Rio, Honda Jazz and Suzuki Swift. At $16,500 drive away the base-level Pop might miss out on the TwinAir engine, but looks more competitive against the likes of Volkswagen up!, Mitsubishi Mirage and Holden Barina Spark.

2014 Fiat Panda Lounge pricing and specifications:
$22,500 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 0.875-litre two-cylinder turbo-petrol
Output: 63kW/145Nm
Transmission: Five-speed automated manual
Fuel: 4.1L/100km (combined)
CO2: 95g/km (combined)
Safety Rating: Five-star ANCAP

What we liked:Not so much:
>> Perky, characterful two-cylinder engine>> Hesitant Dualogic transmission
>> Standard (on Lounge) Low Speed Collision Mitigation system>> Tiny boot
>> Super-low fuel consumption, CO2 emissions for TwinAir engine>> Imponderable trip information controls

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Published : Thursday, 16 January 2014
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