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Driven: Fiat Panda Range

After three generations of Panda, weíve finally got these funky little mobile boxes in Australia. The original 1979 model, whilst designed by Italdesign, stylists of many an exotic car, was about as boxy as a car got. All the glass was flat and the panels not much more curvaceous. But as a practical, economical and cheap to maintain car, the little Panda was a winner. Italian farmers still love the 4-wheel-drive version.

For the second generation it gained two more doors and became a lot more of a city car suited to family use, the theme carried on for the latest generation. The newest Panda is available in a wider range of specifications than ever before.

With Fiat taking a new, confident look at properly marketing its products in Australia, and sales of the 500 skyrocketing, importation of the Panda makes perfect sense. It shares some of its structure and many mechanical components with the 500, but in a far more practical body.

Thatís not to say it is plain or dull, no sir Ė this car has Squircles. This is a design theme of a rounded-off square which is used repeatedly throughout the Panda. It works quite well and adds some character to the little boxy car.

Three engines are available in Australia, quite specifically for different models in the range. The Panda starts off with the price-leader Pop, marketed at a driveaway price of $16,500 which is very competitive. The Pop has the least luxury of any Panda, but still has power steering, power front windows, remote central locking, a suite of airbags and (effective) air conditioning. Remember the days when Italian car air conditioning was less effective at cooling than leaving the fridge door slightly open? When it workedÖ

The 1.2 litre 4-cylinder engine that sits in the front of the Panda Pop is its least likeable characteristic. Itís an old fashioned kind of engine, devoid of anything other than basic motive power and noise to match. It gets the car to move, but thatís about it.

In the same story as the 500, move a step up from the Pop and you get two less cylinders. But what an engine! The 900cc turbo twin is a ripper. From the thrumming sound and low rev vibrations you know itís something different. As you get moving in first gear thereís considerable rattling through the whole car, but pretty quickly the turbocharger is doing its job and the action starts. The TwinAir engine smooths out with a few revs and acceleration is quite good. Handling is fine and if anything, it feels a little sportier than a 500. Odd. The ride is also an improvement over the bouncy 500. It all makes the Panda a lot of fun to drive.

Sure you have to do your best to maximise your momentum, but thatís a fun part of small-engined cars. It really seems quite sporty. Even with the optional ($1500) Dualogic automated gearshift. In auto mode is slowly changes gear, and likes you to lift off the throttle to help. Once youíve acclimatised to the tardy shifts, itís easy to live with. You can manually flick the gearstick to make (slightly) quicker changes too.

The two-pot engine comes in Easy and Lounge trim levels. The Easy gains a few niceties and comfort features, but itís the Lounge which gets all the fruit. Importantly, it has a height adjustable driverís seat. I found I was perched too high in the lesser Pandas, feeling like I was on, not in the seats. The Lounge comes only with Dualogic transmission. Plus it gets alloy wheels, leather steering wheel and gearknob, window tint and more.

The final version in the range is the Trekking, which has a tricky adjustable diff (called Traction Plus) for sand and snow use, more ground clearance, plastic cladding around the car and a 1.3 litre turbodiesel engine. The diesel actually gives the easiest performance of any Panda, due to the additional torque over the other versions. Itís only available as a 5-speed manual. The Trekking is also as luxuriously appointed as the Lounge.

To underscore the snowy destinations the Trekking seems to have been designed for, it has a heated windscreen and heated front seats. The price though, will probably mean sales at the top end of the Panda range will be slow.

Various styles of interior trim delineate one version from the other, but all are pretty good Ė stylish and not badly finished for a budget car. They even have squircle shaped cup holders.

All Pandas have radio/CD/MP3 with steering wheel controls, Fiatís Blue&me system with Bluetooth, USB and AUX connectivity and daytime running lamps. Stop-Start technology is fitted from the Easy upward, as are rear park sensors and switchable steering lightness (up to 35km/h), supposedly for city use, is on all Pandas.

The Lounge boasts a low speed collision mitigation system, just like a grown up Mercedes or Volvo.

On top of the dash is a plug ready to take an optional, special Tom Tom sat-nav unit that costs $540.50. You can pair your phone with the Fiatís system either via the Tom Tom or the carís own set-up. The Tom Tom also provides other Panda specific information. Itís sure to be a popular option.

The Panda curiously features Ďeco:Driveí which allows owners to record their driving style onto a USB. This can be download this onto a dedicated Fiat website, which will calculate a score based on the driverís eco-driving skills (or lack thereof).

Space in the back is tight, but at least there are rear doors to get you in there, and an adult can fit. Look at the car in profile and itís clear the Panda is a very short car.

Thereís something that little Italian cars had years ago which manifests itself as driving pleasure, in a fun kind of way. There was a period recently that many Fiats were devoid of this, but the Panda shows it in spades. Even with relatively small, but very economical engines, all Panda versions were fun to drive.

The Panda is an easy to live with car, well equipped, funky and reasonable value. Oddly, in Australia itís priced higher than the equivalent 500s Ė unlike in Europe where the Panda is cheaper. It deserves to sell really well. It may take a bit of a push, but letís hope lots of Australians work out how good it is.

VITAL STATISTICS
 Fiat Panda range
 Pop 1.2 manual, 0-100km/h 14.2 seconds, $16,500 driveaway

 Easy 0.9 turbo manual/Dualogic, 0-100km/h 11.2 seconds, $19,000/20,500

 Lounge 0.9 turbo Dualogic, 0-100km/h 11.2 seconds, $22,500

 Trekking 1.3 turbodiesel manual, 0-100km/h 12.8 seconds, $24,000

 Pricing at time of review
 Text & photos copyright Paul Blank