Fiat’s re-entry into the Australian market could be seen as a good thing; there’s the fun 500 range, the family friendly Freemont……and then there’s the Panda. Available in four specifications, Pop/Easy/Lounge/Trekking and three engine options (1.2L petrol, 1.3L diesel and the twin-air 0.9L petrol) it’s a four door, almost mini van style with Fiat’s “squircle” design ethos http://www.fiat.com.au/images/docs/111011_F_panda_design_story_en.pdf. A Wheel Thing spent a week with the entry level Pop, with the asthmatic 51kW/102Nm 1.2L petrol/five speed manual combination and came away somewhat ambivalent.
The Driven Heart
To say the Pop’s engine is woefully underpowered and lacking in the necessary torque to perform the most basic of driving requests is a massive understatement. What works, to a point, in the 500, fails and fails miserably in the Panda. At just 1015 kilograms it’s a telling story that the Panda has a zero to 100 kilometre time that could be mentioned in weeks and simply feels raw, raucous and unrefined. The old adage about being quicker downhill certainly is proven here, with Fiat’s own time of 0 to 100 kmh being in the order of over 14 seconds. A main contributor is the dearth of torque at anything under 3500 rpm, a clutch that needs some judicious footwork to meet the pickup point and a dropoff in revs once the gear is found. Acceleration seems to pick up once in third gear and the speedo is showing 60 but getting away from the lights or stop sign? You’ve got time to have a cuppa and a scone…All this with just one load of 80 kilos on board. Backed up by a five speed manual, with a light and easy to throw gear lever, it’s sluggish, to say the least.
The Office Space
Fiat have wheeled out something called “Squircle”. Yup, it’s exactly as it read, square circles and it abounds throughout the cabin. The dash, the dials, the console, window buttons, handbrake; even, to a point, the outside. According to Fiat in a PR release that reads like the slightly “unusual” ones from Japan in days gone by: “The squircle is the evolution of the square. It combines the efficiency of squareness with the pleasantness of a circle.This combination confers robustness and roundness, making it the ideal shape to afford protection both internally and externally…..and last but not least it is an appealing, whimsical, joyful evolution.” Huh?
It’s semi-colourful inside, the material wrapping the seats is an eye searing red butting up against black bolsters. The black plastics on the door and dash are embossed with the word “Panda” with the letters at all angles like a crazy word sleuth while the speaker covers look like refugees from the 1970s. The dash plastic surround is a battleship grey, contrasting nicely with the black. It’s here that the squircle philosophy is really noticeable, with just about every part of the design part of that philosophy. Airvents, radio buttons, aircon control surrounds, window buttons, the centre hub of the tiller, the dash dials, the seat headrests, parking brake and drinks holders in the centre, the door handle are all of the squircle dance group. The seats are more comfortable than the 500, all round vision is good except for a smallish rear vision mirror. Ergonomically it’s a winner inside, with the possible exception of retro style manual adjustment for the wing mirrors and (gasp) handles to wind up the rear windows. The roof lining looks cheap and had a couple of unexplainable bumps in it whilst the cargo area is unfinished to the eyes. This particular theme extends to under the bonnet, with the underside unpainted, clearly showing the spray marks around the edge. I can’t think why even a pass or two from the robots in the body colour couldn’t be used.
The squircle identity is strong with this one; it’s clearly evident in the body panels, headlights and the profile. The rear passenger and quarter windows, even the profile of the rear window has the squircle look. Rounded all over with the only straight edges in the door lines, it’s smooth and curvaceous to look at. It’s a compact little thing, with a length of just 3.6 metres and wheelbase of 2.3m, whilst the track is only 1.4 metres, which adds to the handling prowess, as much as is allowable on the tiny 175/65 tyres rolling on 14 inch wheels.
On The Road
It’s a crying, screaming shame the engine is a one legged fish out of water as the chassis is bellowing for more torque. The ride is unbelievably good, with a firm yet compliant ride around town, on the freeway and over just about every bump thrown at it large ignored, even if a mild sideways hop is involved. Given some urban terrain to deal with, in the form of gravel, bumps and front lawns, the Panda rolls them out flat and with barely a niggle. On the freeway it’s flat, a touch noisy, yet with no noticeable float through some of the bigger undulations found. The gearing sees the Panda at around 3000rpm for 110, the tiny powerplant creating plenty of noise to let the driver know. Acceleration is, as mentioned, glacial and in an urban environment in Australia, it’s a mixed blessing. In a city environment that’s not a handicap but trying to enter a highway with oncoming traffic at 80 kmh and above it’s downright dangerous. Even with the soft clutch and reasonably quick manual change (again, like the 500, light enough to be finger tipped through) the dire lack of torque hurts. The tiny 175/65/14 inch Duragrip tyres from Goodyear struggle to provide grip in turns, though, along with a steering rack ratio that promotes understeer, with plenty of protest squeals from the front in even a simple roundabout turn. City mode, the electronic adjustment to a lighter feel overall, isn’t nearly as pronounced as it is on the 500, strangely enough and that’s probably a good thing.
It’s becoming accepted that Fiat Australia has underpriced the Fiat 500 and overpriced the Panda; effectively the models need to swap places price wise. With a current (at the time of writing) price of $16500.00 driveaway for the entry level model compared the $14K for the 500 Pop, which is selling its tyres off. The relative lack of performance from the 1.2L engine compared to the smaller and lighter 500 is, for me, a concern but a great delight is the superb handling, which garners praise around the world. If you’re a single person and not needing to carry anything but yourself, can live with snail like acceleration plus think four doors is useful, this is your car. If not…..for information go here: http://www.fiat.com.au/panda?gclid=CIbd38XhqbsCFQ5UpgodZyMABg