Fiat says compact hatchbacks needn’t be so utilitarian – the cute, chic and oh-so Italian Fiat Panda is now on-sale in Australia after years of selling-up a storm in Europe. Perhaps headlined by the cute 500, Australians have a soft spot for the Fiat brand but unfathomably, previous management didn’t bring the Panda ‘downunder’.
Now, Fiat in Australia is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the parent company and every model made is under consideration for local sale. Given its sales success over three generations in Europe, the Panda was top of the list.
Fiat Panda Overview
Fiat Panda is a compact five-door hatchback. Locally, the Panda comes in three model grades – entry-level ‘Pop’ (as tested by CarShowroom.com.au) which retails for $16,500, then there’s the ‘Easy’ ($19,000 manual or $20,500 automatic), the ‘Lounge’ (auto only) for $22,500 and the range-topper is the ‘Trekking’ which is stickered at $24,000.
Bigger than the iconic Fiat 500, but slightly smaller than the Golf-rivalling Punto, and as visitors to Italy will confirm, the Panda is one of the biggest-selling cars in Europe.
Fiat Panda Engine
Fiat brings the Panda to Australia with an interesting choice of three engines. The range-topping Trekking model uses the 55kW/190Nm 1.3-litre, four-cylinder turbo-diesel which is immensely popular in Europe while mid-grade Lounge and Easy models employ the technically-fascinating 63kW/145Nm turbocharged 0.9-litre, two-cylinder petrol powerplant.
The entry-level Fiat Panda Pop model we tested scores the naturally-aspirated 1.2-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine.
Maximum power is 51kW at 5500rpm and peak torque of 102Nm is delivered at 3000rpm.
Drive is to the front wheels via a five-speed manual transmission (sequential five-speed ‘Dualogic’ automatic for the Easy and Lounge models).
The Fiat Panda Pop delivers combined cycle fuel consumption of 5.2l/100kms (6.4l/100kms for the Mazda2 1.5-litre and 5.7l/100kms for the Toyota Yaris 1.3-litre). And Fiat Panda’s 1.2-litre complies with Euro5 standard for exhaust emissions with a C02 score of 120g/km.
Fiat Panda The Interior
The Italian style of the Fiat Panda is obvious when you open the door and climb inside – the looks of the dashboard, trim materials and switchgear are all…well, just different to the Japanese and Korean rivals. And there’s a quality about the fit and finish which actually matches the best of the Japanese.
Family buyers will like the ergonomics – 14 storage spaces including (in the new-design dashboard layout) a large open hold-all in front of the passenger (this a throw-back to the original Panda) as well as a new lockable glovebox.
In its latest update, Fiat set-about providing enhanced interior space and practicality for the Panda (the cabin is 20mm longer than the previous model). So, for example, slimmer seats provide 23mm extra entry space for those in the front and 6.0mm for those entering the rear and the front seats offer 210mm of travel.
We liked the sporty driving position, the ‘short-throw’ gear-lever and we liked Fiat’s usual slick instrumentation.
The CarShowroom.com.au juniors had no complaints about the back seat (legroom on par with major rivals). The seat split-folds 60/40 and when folded affords an improved 870-litres of cargo space (36-litres up on the previous generation) – in that guise the Fiat Panda can actually carry items more than two-metres in length.
Fiat Panda Exterior & Styling
The cute looks of the Fiat Panda are no accident – in designing this third-generation model, Fiat’s Turin-based stylists knew they were crafting the latest version of a vehicle which is an icon at home in Italy. So, while paying heed to its heritage with lots of cues to previous Panda’s, this latest version adopts both a stronger look but also some extra curves and sophistication.
That extra sleekness paid dividends with the drag Cd down to 0.32 (one of the best in this class).
At the front, there’s nice, modern headlights, a slim-line upper grille and clever rubber ‘bump’ strips on the corners (to absorb those every day knocks…tried to park on the street in Rome lately?).
In profile, Fiat has given the Panda a unique three-window look and there’s nice curves around the front wheel-arches.
And the rear is also a styling statement with curves and shape you often don’t see in small hatchbacks.
Fiat Panda On The Road
We couldn’t resist loading the family on-board the Fiat Panda and heading to Melbourne’s Italian heart, Lygon Street, Carlton on a Saturday morning. Yep there were other Italian cars from that that manufacturer in Maranello (that would be Ferrari) - costing 31 times as much as the Panda - parked nearby but we still got the ‘thumbs-up’ from the aficionados.
In that city environment, the Fiat Panda excels – the zippy 1.2-litre engine is nicely mated to the easy-to-use five-speed manual transmission and acceleration is brisk. And with good all-round visibility, combining with a diminutive 9.3-metre turning circle, parking and negotiating narrow streets is a breeze.
Likewise on the freeway (they do have autostradas in Italy), the Fiat Panda has nice response for merging and cruises happily at the legal limit.
Underneath, the Fiat Panda runs a modern MacPherson strut front suspension with a torsion beam at the rear and spring/damper calibration is typically European firm. So, despite only having 51kW/102Nm under your right foot, when pressed hard over our high speed mountain roads loop, the Fiat Panda showed those European origins with flat cornering, precision and surprisingly high grip levels from the 175/65 R14 rubber.
And in both city and rural driving the Fiat Panda displayed a level of refinement which is lacking in some rivals in this segment. In fact this was an area addressed during the most recent model upgrade – a reduction of 4dB in cabin noise translates to a 50 per-cent improvement over the previous generation.
Fiat Panda Challenges
Relatively firmly sprung and weighing-in at just 950kgs, ride in our Fiat Panda Pop did get a bit jiggly on poor secondary roads.
Fiat Panda Verdict
‘Style’ isn’t just bought off the shelf. Even walking down the street in Rome, Tuscany or the Amalfi Coast, just about everyone you pass is oozing style – even if they’re only popping out to the market to buy pasta.
Fiat is the same and the company which brings us the iconic 500 now has a more mainstream light car in the Panda. And it’s this ‘Italian-ness’ which makes the Panda stand-out in a segment which is loaded with smart, practical small hatchbacks.
Add the ‘fun-to-drive’ factor and that punchy and fuel-efficient 1.2-litre engine…well the Panda has the Fiat DNA all over it.
So if you’re shopping light cars, pop (no pun intended) into your nearest Fiat dealer and check-out the Panda – you might even get an espresso to sip while you’re there.
Fiat Panda The Competition
Top-seller in this segment last year was the Mazda2. Like the larger Mazda3, the ‘2’ showcases why Mazda is at the top of the game at the moment – nice looks (but not as stylish as the Fiat Panda), powerful 1.5-litre engine and driving dynamics as good as they come. Mazda has sharpened the pricing pencils across its range and the Mazda2 starts at $15,790.
Number two was the Toyota Yaris. Typical Toyota, the Yaris is a brilliant all-rounder with a choice of 1.3-litre or 1.5-litre powerplants. Like the Mazda2, the Yaris doesn’t hold a candle to the Fiat Panda for styling chic but its $15,690 starting price (5-door) scores points.
And our third most-popular compact hatchback in 2013 was the Hyundai i20. With a 1.4-litre engine and starting at $16,590, the i20 has been a global phenomenon for the Korean giant, racking up massive sales everywhere. That’s no surprise as it’s very good. Like the others though, the Hyundai i20 looks a tad bland alongside the Fiat Panda.