Quirky styling touches add to the fun factor of Fiat's functional Panda
SQUARES rule as far as the latest Fiat Panda is concerned.
There are squares with rounded corners everywhere: on the dashboard, on the instrument panel and on the backs of seats. Even the door handles, the steering wheel boss and the rear windows follow the theme.
Fiat calls this rounding of all lines a "soft cube" approach, and I reckon it works well because these quirky styling touches add an even greater sense of fun to this functional model that's proved such a great success for the Italian manufacturer.
Surprisingly, the new model, on sale here since the spring, is still only the third incarnation of a vehicle that's the world's top-selling small car with more than 6.4 million sales globally since 1980, demonstrating that the concept of a small, stylish, affordable people's car will win universal popularity.
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People love the Panda because it's a functional car with a fun-to-drive and friendly nature. It's also a car with lower running costs, which have been reduced still further with the introduction in the new version of Fiat's award-winning, turbo-charged TwinAir engine.
Small cars of this type are what Fiat does best, and in its latest form the Panda is better than ever in so many ways.
It's longer, wider and slightly taller than before so there's more space for occupants and their belongings.
It's also better to drive, represents a step up in quality and is available with some smart technology, including Fiat's Blue&Me infotainment system based on a Microsoft Windows concept.
A really big plus is that it can be ordered with the TwinAir engine that delivers the lowest carbon dioxide emissions of any mass-produced petrol powerplant in the world.
The 875cc, two-cylinder engine is a cracking little motor that's so responsive as well as so economical. Ok, it's noisier than a regular four-cylinder engine but its throaty two-cylinder note does add character, with the little car sounding quite sporty when the powerplant is on the boil.
Fiat's revolutionary multi-air technology and the addition of a small turbo-charger bring excellent mid-range performance, making the powerplant exceedingly flexible. It delivers 85hp, which is significantly greater than conventional engines of similar size. Maximum torque is available from 2,000rpm.
More good news is that the 98g/km CO2 emissions are significantly lower than other engines with similar performance, and the sub 100g/km figure means the TwinAir Pandas are exempt from road tax and also the London Congestion Charge.
A start&stop device helps cut emissions while also bringing excellent fuel economy. Fiat quotes a combined fuel consumption figure of 67.3mpg, but my experience suggests that it takes a careful right foot to achieve anything close to this figure. My average was only 35mpg when driving in the hills but was topping 60mpg when driving on the motorway.
Pressing an ECO button on the dashboard helps reduce fuel consumption at the cost of pulling power. Torque is reduced by nearly 50% so it's wise not to press the button before planning a quick overtaking move.
The TwinAir motor is the more powerful of the two petrol engines currently offered in the car, the other being the 1.2-litre, four-cylinder 69bhp powerplant carried over from the last-generation Panda. The car is also sold with a 75bhp MultiJet 2 turbo-charged diesel.
There are Pop, Easy and Lounge versions priced from £11,250 and available in Derby through Bristol Street Motors Fiat dealership in Sir Frank Whittle Road.
The TwinAir car I drove was a Lounge model with enhanced specification including 15in alloy wheels, front foglights and heated door mirrors that were finished in body colour along with the door handles and mouldings.
All versions have four airbags, body-coloured bumpers, Dualdrive electric power steering, electric front windows and a radio with CD and MP3 player.
The step up to an Easy or Lounge model also brings manual air conditioning, roof rails, central door locking with remote control and six rather than four speakers for the audio system.
The optional Blue&Me system found on the car tested allows Bluetooth-equipped devices such as phones and MP3 music players to be linked into the car. These can then be controlled using voice activation either via a display panel that works with a microphone in the roof, or buttons mounted on the steering wheel. It's easy to use and makes for safer motoring because drivers can keep their hands on the wheel and their phones in their pockets.
Music stored an a USB device, media player or the latest Apple systems can be played via the car's sound system with track information shown on the display panel.
The standard Blue&Me option costs £265 with a Techno pack including Blue&Me and Tom Tom Live offered in a £400 deal.
The portable Tom Tom touchscreen device slots into a holder at the top of the dashboard so there are no unsightly wires and it can be easily removed for safe keeping when the car is left unattended.
The dashboard has undergone a radical makeover and, in a move harking back to the first ever Panda, has a roomy storage pocket ahead of the front passenger. There is also a locking glovebox in the lower part of the dash.
Light grey trim on dashboard and seats helps make the cabin a pleasant place to be. I like the squares electronically welded into the new seat material.
Mounting the gearlever on the dashboard puts it closer to hand and the handbrake has been redesigned to continue the soft-cube theme, the move releasing extra storage space.
In total, there are 14 storage spaces around the cabin.
The driver enjoys good forward visibility thanks to a high driving position and the large windscreen. The car's tall styling improves headroom all round.
Most of the Panda's growth in length is in the rear overhang to increase the new car's boot space as well as offering greater legroom to rear passengers. Even so, most adults taking a back seat will find their knees brushing the backs of front seats. Wider bodywork means space for three passengers in the rear while most class rivals have just two seats in the back.
Folding down the back bench increases capacity to 870 litres, which is 36 litres more than in the second-generation model. It's also possible to stow items more than two metres in length.
Flex Packs including a split/folding rear bench, a cargo box and a passenger seat that folds down to form a table have been available since last month. It is also possible to order a sliding rear seat to swell boot capacity from 225 to 260 litres.
Compact dimensions, good visibility all round and light controls make the Panda easy to drive. Pressing the City button of the Dualdrive power steering system brings finger-tip light steering.
A stiffer body makes the new Panda feel sturdier. It also feels more stable, suspension changes reducing roll while improving ride quality. Above all, the Panda is a lot more composed in its latest guise and also has tidier handling.
The Panda's safety credentials have been improved by the more rigid body and the car also comes with up to six airbags (four as standard), an active anti-whiplash head restraint system and anti-lock brakes. In common with the new city cars from VW, Skoda and SEAT, the Panda can be ordered with a low-speed collision mitigation system that reads the road ahead and, when it detects an obstacle in the vehicle's path, applies the brakes automatically. Another option is an electronic stability programme.
Fiat's success has been built on producing excellent small cars and the new Panda joins a line-up that also includes the hugely popular 500 hatchback and cabrio plus the Punto supermini.
It's good the manufacturer has not strayed too far from the original car, the new model retaining the cheeky styling and practical nature of the 1980 vehicle while having a more modern look.
The new nicely rounded bodywork is an evolution of the shape of the last-generation car. I love the curvier styling and the soft-cube approach that even extends to the headlights. Placing the rear lights higher reduces the risk of damage.
To sum up, Fiat has certainly boxed clever with the Panda. It's a real charmer in more ways than one.