Since a group of motoring journalists from across Europe got together in 1964 to declare the first “Car of the Year” (it was the Austin 1800, by the way) there appear to have been an ever growing number of “awards” bestowed on automotive products around the world. Although I do not doubt that any manufacturer relishes the publicity that comes with receiving any award going, few people take them all that seriously any more and even the once prestigious “Car of the Year” title has lost much of its impact, not least because there is a strong feeling that xenophobia influences too many judges and because some of the previous winners (the Chrysler Horizon, Renault R9, Peugeot 307 come to mind) have simply not been very good cars. Fiat’s diminutive Panda won the award in 2004, and was widely felt by most to be a worthy winner. Certainly it has been a massive sales success for Fiat, not least in its home market, where it is utterly ubiquitous. Over two million Type 169 Pandas have been built since the model that Fiat intended initially to call “Gingo” was launched in 2003. On the eve of the car’s replacement by a third generation model, I finally got the chance to sample the Panda., in its native land, where it served as my transport from a Bologna base for a weekend.
Ignore the various special edition models that have appeared over the years, and the second generation Panda range is quite easy to describe: until the advent of Euro V, the range was topped by a sporting model, the 100HP; a 4×4 utility model has proved particularly popular among the residents of alpine regions; and for everyone else there has been a choice of two other petrol engines and a 1.3 litre diesel. There have been a small number of trim variants, most often called Active, Dynamic and Eleganza. Until this year, the entry level petrol car was powered by a 1.1 litre 8 valve unit, but it is the 1242cc engine that has featured in the majority of the cars sold, and this is the powerplant that was in my test car. It develops 69 bhp, which does not sound all that much by modern standards, even when it is asked to propel a relatively small and light car. However, in the best of traditions of small Fiats. the engine is very happy to be revved lots, so you can work the engine hard, and by so doing, the Panda is well able to keep up with typical traffic flows. It is a smooth and refined engine, and never gets unduly rough, and indeed the overall refinement levels impressed in a way that no small cheap car did in the past. There is a standard 5 speed gearbox and the gearlever is mounted up high in the middle of the dash, where it comes perfectly to hand. The gear shift quality is good, slotting cleanly between any of the forward gears, though it was a little imprecise when selecting reverse, to the extent that I was not always confident that backwards had been engaged. The gear ratios appeared to be well chosen, and combined with plenty of torque, the Panda really is fun to drive. There is a plastic moulded steering wheel which proved less unpleasant to hold than some others that I have recently encountered. The steering is light but – provided you have not pressed the City button – still has decent feel, and this makes the car easy to position on the road and to manoeuvre. There is a certain amount of body roll, but this is a fun car to push hard, as you probably will, taking advantage of that eager little engine. The brakes are well up to the task of stopping the Panda, and there is a traditional pull-up handbrake located between the front seats. Only the ride is a slight disappointment, as the car is a bit bouncy, but in a far from uncomfortable way. With lots of glass, and a relatively upright rear window, all round visibility is good, and the little Fiat proved particularly easy to tuck into small parking slots that would have eluded even a slightly bigger car. Fuel economy was good, with an average of 4.9 litres/100km, which amounts to 57.44mpg, and considering that a lot of the test distance was conducted at 120 kmh on the autostrada, that has to rank as very good.
Open the door, and there is no pretence at luxury in here. You see a large plastic moulding for the dashboard that has none of the style that dominates the Panda’s close relative, the Fiat 500. However, everything is perfectly fit for purpose, and the ergonomics are generally sound. Two large dials for the speedo and rev counter are complemented by two smaller ones for fuel level and water temperature, all under a single cowling. Column stalks operate the lights, wipers and indicators, all of which were very familiar as they are the same as you find in the 500 range The centre of the dash extends higher than in many cars, which means that the audio unit, which is at the top of the stack is particularly easy to reach. Underneath it are a pair of air vents and a grouping of smaller buttons, including the “City” one which makes the steering extremely light. A quartet of rotary dials for the air conditioning are then at the base of the vertical part of this moulding, and these are the same as those found in the Fiat 500. The large plastic moulding then slopes at a 45 degree angle, providing a place from which the gear lever emerges, where as already noted, it falls perfectly to hand. Although none of the plastics are particularly soft to the touch, this all feels rather appropriate for a car with its feet deeply rooted in utilitarianism such as this one is. As with the 500, the electric window switches are on the dash, rather than the more common location of the doors.
Practicality is the core objective of the Panda, which explains the rather boxy and tall styling. It works. Externally, this is a small car, but open the doors and boot and you will be surprised at the amount of space available. Two adults could sit perfectly comfortably in the back, with plenty of head room thanks to the relatively upright seat and high roof line. A third adult could squeeze in, though as the Panda is not that wide, shoulder room would be a little tight for everyone. There is a decent sized boot for such a small car, too. The floor area is not that great, though it is a nice regular rectangular shape, but it is quite deep from boot floor to the parcel shelf, and if you remove this, you could pack quite a lot in up to the roof line. The rear seats are split and the backrests drop down onto the rear seat cushions, to create a sizeable cargo area. There are plenty of places in the passenger cabin for odds and ends, too. The top of the dashboard comprises a flat and lipped area above the average sized glove box, so you could certainly put items there, and indeed provided that they did not reflect annoyingly in the screen, there is also a flat area around the instrument binnacle that could be used for the same purpose. There are door bins, and a pair of cup holders between the front seats. There is a pocket in the back of the passenger seat, and there are door bins on the rear doors as well.
For the UK market in 2011, Panda is available in Active, MyLife and Dynamic trim levels. In Italy, similar terms are used, though a close study of the websites for both countries left me still a little unsure as to which model I had been driving. I think it was probably a MyLife. Even if you upgrade to Dynamic trim, Panda is far from luxurious. On the test car. the door mirrors were adjusted manually. though there were electric front windows. Dynamic trim does give you electrically adjusted mirrors. There is a height adjuster for the driver’s seat, which was useful. The headrests on the test car were of the old style, comprising a hard plastic moulding, and just a frame, which I did not particularly appreciate, though the website suggests that even in MyLife spec, these should be cloth covered,. There is remote central locking and a single slot CD for the audio unit. The longitudinal roof rails are standard on the MyLife and Dynamic models, but the metallic paint is a modestly priced option, which applied to the test car. 14″ alloy wheels come with the Dynamic trim level. It is at this point that I should, of course, remind that the list price of the Panda, even in MyLife form is low, retailing at just £9255 on the road. At this level, it has to be described as good value.
Indeed, the Panda is not just “good value”, but simply “good”. Everyone I know who has had experience of the Panda has been enthusiastic about this little car, and having now sampled it for myself, not only do I see why, but I completely agree with them. For those looking for a small practical urban runabout which is good to drive, they should look no further. Of course, Fiat has achieved much of its success in building cars with these sort of attributes for many years, and with the Panda, they have continued this long tradition. Unlike many cars at the bottom of the automotive pile, which are still pretty unpleasant, this is one to relish whether it is a cheap rental car, or a vehicle to own yourself. A worthy “Car of the Year”, then.