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Fiat's little Panda range still has a funky charm. June Neary reports
The original first generation Fiat Panda was always a favourite of mine back in the Nineties and served me very well during my student days. I knew today's model couldn't match the 'back to basics' appeal of the Giugiaro styled original, but times have changed and so have the demands of modern motorists. Seats that resemble hammocks just won't cut it in a market of growing sophistication. The current Panda may be linked to the original in name only, but it has proved to be an enduring favourite. The shape is cheeky without lapsing into cutesy pastiche and overall and the latest version gains efficient mild hybrid engine tech. Overall, this remains a car that's virtually impossible to dislike.
The term 'city car' usually denotes a vehicle that's cramped, insubstantial and rather uncomfortable to drive. The Panda is a long way from this stereotype. Despite measuring only 3,653mm from bumper to bumper, this Fiat offers a decent amount of interior space, helped by a generous height of 1,551mm and that wheel at each corner design. There's was something of a feeling of tiny MPV about the previous generation version of this model. There still is. It remains a tall car, with a vertical tail, a five-door-only shape and a large glass area. Room up front is fine for two big adults, but rear legroom will naturally be a little pinched if four burly blokes squeeze in. Still, for two adults and two children it works very well. The dashboard is enveloped in a colourful frame of your choosing with a roomy storage pocket in front of the front passenger supposed to evoke a nod towards original Eighties Panda motoring. Luggage space is adequate (225-litres), access to the hatch being helped by a very low loading sill. A split folding rear bench helps when transporting long or bulky items.
The latest 1.0-litre mild hybrid petrol engine has decent pulling power and works via a 6-speed manual gearbox integrated with a 12-volt 'BSG' 'Belt-integrated Starter Generator', allowing for a quiet, vibration-free restart of the internal combustion engine in Stop&Start mode. The new system also involves lowering the entire power unit 45mm so the car behaves better on the road thanks to the lower centre of gravity. Elsewhere in the range, the old entry-level 69bhp petrol 1.2-litre petrol unit continues. And standard and 'Cross' versions of the top 4x4 derivative persevere with the brand's two cylinder 85hp TwinAir petrol unit. Many of this Fiat's underpinnings are shared with those of the brand's other, more fashion-conscious citycar offering, the 500 - which is no bad thing as that car is a pretty fun steer, especially in an urban environment. Somewhere this Panda is just as at home. True, the five-speed gearbox could be a little more precise, but you'll appreciate the way this car takes even the nastier small urban bumps in its stride. And delivers neat little touches like the steering's 'City' mode option to increase the assistance it gives at parking speeds so that you can use the tight 9.3m turning circle more easily. Urban-friendly through and through you see.
Prices start at around £12,000 for the base 'Pop' model - a lot less, in other words, than you'd pay for the less spacious but more fashionable Fiat 500. Running costs are minimal - though not as sharp as rivals. The 1.0-litre mild hybrid variant manages 50.4mpg on the WLTP combined cycle and 90g/km of NEDC-rated CO2. I'd want to consider the Low Speed Collision Mitigation system. This uses a laser sensor on the windscreen to scan a space a short distance in front of the vehicle to determine the risk of a collision. If a potential crash situation is detected and the driver doesn't respond, the system can activate emergency braking at speeds of less than 18mph or if you're going faster, at least slow the car down to minimise the impact. Clever.
Despite a flurry of more recent arrivals in the city car sector, there's still little to match the Panda's space and value combination. Considering the affordable pricing, Fiat have specified the car very well and crucially, it's fun to drive. Few cars are as instantly likeable.
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