Fiat Panda is a rare species

DAVE MOORE
Last updated 07:49 24/03/2014

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It's hard to believe that the Fiat Panda has been around for more than 33 years in one form of another, having gone through the best part of three generations in that time.

AT A GLANCE
Drivetrain: Transverse FWD DOHC four-valve per cylinder parallel twin or inline four with 5-speed manual or dual logic semi-automatic transmission.
Outputs:
1.2-litre i4
- 1242cc petrol, 51kW at 5500rpm, 102Nm at 3000rpm.
0.9-litre i2 - 875cc turbo petrol, 63kW at 5500rpm, 145Nm at 1900rpm.
1.3-litre i4 - 1248cc trubo diesel, 55kW at 4000rpm, 190Nm at 1500rpm.
Performance:
1.2-litre i4
- Max 164kmh, 0-100kmh 14.2secs, 5.2L/100km, 120g/km CO2.
0.9-litre i2 - Max 177kmh, 0-100kmh 11.2secs, 4.2L/100km, 99g/km CO2.
1.3-litre i4 - max 161kmh, 0-100kmh 13.2secs, 4.2L/100km, 109g/km CO2.
Chassis: Front independent MacPherson struts, rear torsion beam, Dualdrive electrically-assisted rack and pinion steering. Front disc, rear drum brakes.
Safety: Front, side and head curtain airbags, ABS, vehicle dynamic control, brake assist and traction control. 5-star Euro NCAP safety rating.
Connectivity: Blue&Me bluetooth system for phone and streaming; USB and Auxiliary connectivity. Pre-prepared for TomTom sat-nav.
Dimensions:
L 3653-3686mm, W 1643mm, H 1551-1605mm (rails), W/base 2300rpm, F/track 1409mm, R/track 1408mm, Weight 11015 to 1110kg, Fuel 37L.
Pricing:
Panda 1.2 Pop
manual $21,990;
Panda 0.9 Easy manual $23,990; auto , $25,990;
Panda 0.9 Lounge auto $27,990.
Panda 1.3D Trekking manual $29,990.
Hot: Cute design; clever, spacious cabin with tough, classy materials; fun chassis; pliant ride; free smile every mile.
Not: Should start at less than $20k; no base auto; importers making no noise about this car at all.
Verdict: Fun-a-minute hatch is a practical, neat-to-drive number that some people will love. Those that don't, don't matter.
Each generation has been a finalist for the European Car of the Year title, with the second generation version taking that award in 2004, the year after the car was launched.

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The latest car has been available in its native Europe since 2011, and arrived on the Australian market last year. New Zealand finally got its first modern Panda this year, in four specification levels, with a choice of three engines, both petrol and diesel, and two gearboxes.

Having not had an official Panda on the New Zealand market since the original 80s model, it's a bit like London buses: waiting patiently for years, only to have a bunch of them turn up at once.

In case you don't know what the Panda is, think of it as a Fiat 500 with twice the number of side doors, an even bigger dollop of  fun and 130 per cent of the practicality and you'll get some idea.

While it's a pretty short car at 3653mm, albeit 207mm longer than the 500 overall, the slightly high-rise design (it's 176mm taller than a 500) has a higher hipline and more upright seating, all placed in the same 2300mm wheelbase, which gives it Tardis-like space in the cabin.

This makes it a genuine four-adult cabin space (five if you don't mind a rearseat crush), a slightly larger boot than the 500 at 225 litres compared with 185 litres, all helped by a more upright rear hatch, and if you fold, rather than sit on the rear bench, the taller cabin can offer amazing load space for its tiny overall road footprint, with up to 870 litres available to the seat tops.

So you could call the Panda a city car that doubles-up as compact open-road holdall, with most points in between well-covered too.

What's likeable about the Fiat's interior, apart from its clever packaging, is that its upholstery and padding goes a little further than merely keeping its users' soft bits away from the painted and plastic bits in the cabin. The designers' choice of colours and textures for the car's fabrics and general cabin fittings are as much a celebration as the cute, original body design.

Light colours with geometric patterns that mimic the squared-off dash and door architecture conspire with darker contrasted elements like the seats' side-bolsters, carpetting, fascia shelves, instrument pods and, the centre console to make the cabin a fun place to be.

The Panda's basic specification level is called ''Pop'' which Fiatphiles will remember from the 500 catalogue. Even at its $21,900 sticker, this five-speed 51kW/102Nm 1.2-litre manual-only car is well looked-after for kit. True, it does without alloy wheels - making do with fairly convincing trims instead - and it lacks power mirrors, but it does get airconditioning, half a dozen airbags, switchable, light or heavy electric power steering, full Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free phone use. A four-speaker CD/MP3 sound system is also fitted and it and the Fiat's connectiveity can be controlled from the steering wheel. The ''Pop'' also gets a full suite of safety gear like six airbags, stability and traction control, ABS and a Euro NCAP score of five-stars.

Next-up is the ''Easy'' model for another $2000 which adds roof rails, rear parking sensors, and two extra speakers for the sound system, rear grab handles, a sunglass holder and height adjustable seatbelts.

The Easy is only to be had with the 63kW/145Nm 875cc twin-cylinder turbo engine with stop-start and a choice of five-speed manual or five-speed Dual Logic transmissions - the latter also adding $2000. Don't think just two pots and a tiny 0.9 of a litre of swept volume are selling it short - more about that later.

The same engine, albeit only with Dual Logic at $27,990, can also be had in ''Lounge'' trim, which adds alloy wheels, automatic air conditioning instead of manual, leather steering wheel and gear lever cladding, power heated door mirrors, and a radar-operated low-speed collision mitigation system.

The most expensive of this list of new Pandas is the $29,990 Trekking, which despite its name does not offer all-wheel-drive (though some models do in Europe). What it does get is a raised ride height, a more advanced traction system - to help with some gentle off-roading - heated front seats, a heated front winscreen, which is more useful than it sounds, and special graphics.

That just under $30k sticker does include Fiat's brilliant 55kW/190Nm 1.3-litre Multijet turbodiesel, which is incredibly punchy and would put oily rags out of business.

But despite being two-cylinders short of the 1.3-litre Multijet diesel, and 1.2-litre petrol fours, the wee 900cc twin is the hero of the five-option line-up.

Called the ''Twin-Air'' which only hints at how well this wee unit breathes, the direct-injected eight-valve turbo twin cylinder unit powers the quickest version of the Punto range.

The five-ratio shifter sprouts out of the car's dash just a few centimetres from the steering wheel rim, and combined with a more spacious footwell than the 500's for better clutchwork, the gearbox action is slick and precise.
You feel it best to rev the twin out when you first drive it, after-all it makes no complaint well past the 6000rpm mark.
That may be fun, but it's just as quick if you short-shift the wee feller at about 3000rpm and use the engine's prodigious torque, which comes in strongly at about 1500rpm and peaks at 1900rpm and beyond.

All the while it emits a gutteral but pleasant parallel twin engine note that anyone who has owned or listened to a old British motorcycle will savour.

Short-shifting is the only way you'll close-in on the factory's EU-rated combined fuel economy levels, which are 4.2-litres for 100km travelled.

We didn't quite get there during our tenure with the wee Panda, but we were getting closer as we started to understand the strengths of the engine. Another couple of weeks and the right combination of city, suburban and country work and we'd have clocked well under 5.0L/100km we're sure.

The feel of the Panda's chassis is of a much larger car, the standard steel wheels and trims offer excellent ride quality and the whole car feels wince-proof even when passing over the wickedest of Christchurch flood and quake damaged roads. With the electric power steering on 'City' or low speed mode it feels light but artificial, though ideal for parking and coping with city snarls. Switched to the heavier open-road mode, it all changes to a pleasingly meaty heft, and with lots of grip, good body control considering the wee car's height and lightness, it enhances its large-car feeling and makes it one of the more confident small cars in traffic and on the open road.

To answer inevitable questions when it comes to tall, light cars; yes; it manages side-winds very well, with cyclone Lusi having little effect at all. With the high hip-point of the seats, and the excellent driving position conspire with the car's pale cabin surfaces and a tall, high visibility windscreen to offers a really pleasant view inside and out, the Fiat is a genuinely well-sorted place in which to spend time on the road.

The rear seat doesn't look as cosy as it is, as it has a long squab, that visually disguises its real legroom, which is more than adequate for six-footers (those 1.85m tall).

There were some niggles. My car was not of high enough specification to have power side mirrors, which was a bit of a nuisance, though it was equipped with everything else including power front windows and air con and fuss-free connectivity.
Over all, real niggles are few. Looking at UK prices, I'd have thought the pricing would have been closer to or even under the 500 for the base Panda in New Zealand, but how do you cost the fun and joy of driving this car?

We had smiles on our faces wherever we went and we'd even venture that it's even more fun than the funky wee 500 - so maybe that's where the price difference is.

This Twin-Air option is smallest, cleanest and most frugal engine choice in the Panda line-up and while it takes a while to learn how to operate it properly and to get the most out of it, it's worth persevering with. And the engine note is worth bottling.

The Panda is a rare species indeed in New Zealand, but we've a feeling we'll start seeing a few more on the road once people get over the quirky styling and engine choices.

You'll know the owners, they'll be the ones with the fixed grins on their

- The Press

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