YES YES YES oh YES: cute, fashionable, stocked with gadgets
Oh dear me no: a bit plasticy inside, Ride choppy in places, 2cyl engine runs out of legs fast
City cars, two of the most depressing words in the English language. I have a recurring nightmare where I’m trapped in a bucket of cheap plastic which exploded in a microwave, which then had a motor from a sewing machine stuck to it with chewing gum. In my nightmare, the viewpoint pans back as if in a Hitchcock thriller, and comes to rest on a plastic brick with buttons for wheels, and I’m stuck inside, in miniature. For that is the curse of the city car.
Only one city car so far has not filled me with such awful dread, VW’s fabulous Up! So, when the nice people at Chrysler asked me to take a Fiat Panda for a spin, my heart sank, until I remembered that sweet little Volkswagen.
Did I say Chrysler? Let me explain: in a complex set of circumstances and corporate shenanigans Daimler Benz bought Chrysler, in a POOF of smoke, it turned into Daimler-Chrysler. Like a kid with a new toy, Daimler got bored with their cute little toy, and sold poor Chrysler off. During that period Chrysler acquired much Mercedes DNA and became desirable but wasn’t making enough money and didn’t suit the Mercedes brand image. Fiat snapped up Chrysler and somehow snorted up Alfa Romeo along the way. Fiat has a big brolly and it’s brands include: Abarth, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat Automobiles, Fiat Professional, Jeep, Lancia, Maserati, Ram Trucks, and SRT Fiat also owns 90% of Ferrari.
Not having driven a Panda before I was unsure as to what might great me.
The outside looks like a fruit box with a tissue box glued to the front which has had a dinner plate stuck on each corner. It’s not pretty but it is a pivotal model for Fiat. Fiat has been struggling despite the successful reinvention of Chrysler which has since become quite the money spinner. Although the Cabin feels decidedly low tech, it feels slightly playful. The seats are fairly comfy and the instruments are all easily accessible. The audio system is adequate and has a childlike simplicity to its function which is not bad thing. There is only a 5 speeds in the manual and to save money only the front windows are electric. There is air conditioning but it is strictly a manual affair but the surprising bit is that all Pandas have Satnav. Like VW’s Up!, the Panda’s Satnav is an after-market TomTom that fits into a factory cradle on the top of the dashboard just above the centre vents. It’s easy to program and asks you if you mind paying tolls after each address is input. How terribly sensible. The dash and instruments, like the rest of the vehicle, are utilitarian and functional just as they were meant to be.
I mention all this because entry level cars will be bought entry level boys, in other words those buying their first car. You’d probably be the only gay in the village with a Panda so there would be a certain amount of exclusivity which lends gravitas. What entry level car would be complete without an entry level engine? In yet another cost saving measure the petrol engines are a 51kw 4 cylinder 1.2L, or get this, a 63kw 0.9L 2 cylinder turbo. There is a 51kw turbo diesel too if you’re into that sort of thing.
I hadn’t read the specs prior to taking the cars out and it is just as well. Those figures would have made me quite depressed. Funnily enough it wasn’t as bad as it first seemed. A student might find the 4.2L/100k fuel figures attractive, and a greenie might find the 99g/100km of the 0.9L engine desirable, who knows? The Panda weighs 1024 kgs so the power to weight ratio isn’t as dire as you might think. 2 cylinders is a cut too far and sounds like an tin can full of nails. Turbo or not, it just doesn’t have the legs. According to the trip computer, yes it also has one of those, we managed 6.2L/100k which is very far from the promised 4.2L/100k. In fact it is 50% more. Sure the internal computer probably isn’t all that accurate but 50%? Ford’s ECO BOOST gets better fuel consumption and has more power and is nicer to drive regardless of what model it’s in.
The gears are fairly easy to use in the manual and there is the awful robotised automatic for those of you who don’t know how to drive something with a clutch. The auto is actually a manual transmission with a robotised clutch that does the work of your foot (and hand) for you. In a normal auto, you put your foot down and the transmission smoothly moves through the gears and the shifts as the speed picks up. The shifts have become so smooth that it is getting hard to pick them. The semi auto and its robot clutch it is different. It has as selector like a normal auto with a mode to elect gears yourself. In “drive”, you put your foot down at a set of lights for example, and you catapult yourself across the intersection and at a blistering snail’s pace. Just as you start to pick up speed, and unseen foot depresses the clutch and you and your chums lurch sickeningly forward as the alleged power vanishes, for quite some time. There is time to make a cuppa, do a load of washing and read War and Peace before the transmission shifts into the next gear. The power then returns and you and the boys lurch back into your seats again. It does this with each and every gear but its affects can be minimised by using the buttons then gently lifting your foot off as it changes. It is possibly the most annoying gearbox in history so don’t bother with it.
The ride is soft, almost too soft and the steering is light, almost too light. It makes parking easy with only a single finger being needed to make even the tightest turn. If you do manage some spirited driving you’ll find the suspension regularly reaching the end of its travel and bumping noisily on the rubber stops. Like the Alfa Mito, the ride get choppy on very rutted surfaces.
It is not a vehicle you will desire. You won’t find yourself aching to get behind the wheel and I very much doubt you would spend your weekends driving in the country out in unadulterated fits of pleasure. No, Panda is designed to be driven in the city, in traffic. It is built to a standard of comfort to make short trips agreeable. Like all Fiats and Alfas, the city cars are designed for smaller people and my long legs mean the seat has to be too far back. Since the steering wheel doesn’t adjust out far enough, the seat must be moved closer to the pedals meaning the foot well is a smidgen on the cramped side. Still, it is nowhere near as cramped for a tall person as in Fiat’s 500. There are horses for courses and these city cars are designed for someone else.
By now I had managed to shrug off my deeply held prejudices and began to look at the Panda as it was intended, fir for purpose. I stopped imposing my own requirements on it and started asking the question: If I had need of an inexpensive car to make short trips round town, would the Panda cut the mustard. The answer to that question is, of course, a resounding yes. The manual diesel is the pick and they do what they were designed to do very well. They need to be a few-thou cheaper and have auto wipers and headlights.
Would I buy one? No I’d prefer the WV Up!
Pop 1.2-litre petrol five-door hatch: $16,500 (manual)
Easy 0.9-litre petrol five-door hatch: $19,000 (manual), $20,500 (automatic)
Lounge 0.9-litre petrol five-door hatch: $22,500 (automatic)
Trekking 1.3-litre turbo-diesel five-door hatch: $24,000 (manual)
Price: from $16,500 drive away (to $24,000)
Warranty: 3 years or 150,000km, 3yr roadside assist
Service interval: 12mths/15,000km
Safety: ABS, EBD, TC, 6 airbags,ESC
Engine: 0.9-litre, 2-cyl turbo-petrol, 63kW/145Nm; 1.2-litre 4-cyl petrol, 51kW/102Nm; 1.3-litre 4-cyl turbo-diesel, 55kW/190Nm
Transmission: 5-spd man or 5-spd robotised man; front drive
Fuel Econ: 4.2L/100km; 99g/km and 109g/km (0.9-litre/diesel); 5.2L/100km; 120g/km CO2 (1.2 petrol)
Dimensions: 4.0m (L), 1.7m (W), 1.5m (H)