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Review

First Drive: Fiat Panda car review

23/02/12

THE NEW Panda is in the UK at last, aiming to build on the success of the outgoing model with more space for passengers and luggage, and a new engine option.

Around 11cm has gone into the length at the back, to give more legroom and boot space. Combined with a height of over 1.5 metres, it immediately looks like a bigger, arguably more sensible prospect than the cutesy old wheel-at-each-corner car.

That’s not to say it’s not a looker. It takes the old car’s features and smoothes them out into a sleeker, younger and cheekier style that works well to offset the increase in size. With a wide choice of colours it’s also open to interpretation from buyers.

There are three trim levels and, for now, three engines. Pop is the most basic spec level, with Lounge the most luxurious and Easy the likely best-selling mid range option. Standard spec isn’t immense and alloy wheels are only optional on the Easy, but thankfully upgrades are very keenly priced.

In fact, the grades are priced quite closely together, with a £650 jump between Pop and Easy, and only £500 between Easy and Lounge. The latter comes with larger alloy wheels, body-coloured trim and electric, heated door mirrors all as standard and arguably offers the best value in the range.

Under the bonnet there’s a traditional 1.2-litre petrol, the familiar 1.3 MultiJet diesel and, new to the Panda, the 0.9-litre TwinAir twin-cylinder turbo petrol.

On the way later in the year is a fourth engine option; a slightly larger TwinAir petrol but without a turbocharger. It’s set to have less power and torque than the turbo model, but Fiat says the increase in outright capacity will help give it enough oomph.

In any case, the Panda’s not a lot of car to pull around. The 1.2 version weighs little over a tonne, which helps give it a bouncy, active sort of ride that’s fun for short bursts out of town, but gives a nice, relaxed and lightweight feel in the city where it’s really meant to be driven.

This generation of the car, only the third in its 32-year history, offers an impressive amount of room, helped along by a few other details. The steering wheel doesn’t adjust for reach, which tends to mean pulling the driver’s seat forward a bit more than it otherwise might be and giving rear passengers more room. Six-footers can sit in the back behind a similar-sized driver, and with more general space than a cat-swinging champion would ever need this is a top option for carrying passengers.

Extra length means the doors can be longer, which in turn makes it easier to get in and out of the back; it’s a big leap forward in terms of practicality. The boot is pretty substantial, too, and while you probably won’t get a fortnight’s luggage for four in there, there are few everyday challenges it’s not up to, whether it’s bringing plants back from the garden centre or swallowing a tent and sleeping bags.

The star engine is definitely the TwinAir, even though the inherent vibrations it produces are bound to put some people off. It has huge character and transforms the Panda from the ‘merely’ stylish and practical into a much more complete, enjoyable package. You need to work the five-speed gearbox – common to all models – hard out of town to stay in the motor’s sweet spot, but it’s worth it for the £500 price premium over the 1.2.

There’s a robotised manual gearbox for holders of automatic-only driving licences, but it’s only available on the TwinAir, which is also notable as the only road tax-exempt engine of the three thanks to an engine stop-start system and official 99g/km CO2 output. The diesel shares the stop-start technology, but puts out 104g/km.

The pleasantly zingy and pokey diesel is estimated to make up just 7% of sales, and at a £2,200 premium over the 1.2 petrol it seems poor value unless very high mileages are guaranteed. The TwinAir really is the best of all worlds; economical when driven gently, huge fun when driven hard and blessed with plenty of torque for making easy and rapid progress.

It’s a really very pleasant car to drive around town. The seats are comfortable, the dashboard with its ‘squircle’ shapes looks great and the high driving position differentiates it from other, similar-sized city cars. The gearing on all three engines is well suited to gaining maximum fuel economy in urban surroundings and for people who want a city-car with a much greater feeling of space, the Panda is right on the money.

FACTS AT A GLANCE Model: Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir Lounge, from £11,250 on the road.

Engine: 0.9-litre turbocharged two-cylinder petrol producing 84bhp and 74lb.ft.

Transmission: 5-speed manual gearbox driving the front wheels.

Performance: Top speed 110mph, 0-62mph in 11.2 seconds.

Fuel economy: 67.3mpg.

CO2 rating: 99g/km.

  • Enginespetrol
  • Power4 (higher than average performance)
  • 0-60 mph
  • Economy4 (better than average fuel economy)
  • CO2g/km
  • Insurance groups3 (average costs)
  • Airbags
  • Seats5

Motors.co.uk value verdict:    stars

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