2013 FIAT PANDA REVIEW
Vehicle Style: light five-door hatch
Price: $24,000 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 55kW/190Nm 4cyl diesel | 5spd manual
Fuel Economy claimed: 4.2 l/100km | tested: 4.8 l/100km
Fiat only offers a limited range of vehicles in Australia: one people mover, two vans and three light cars. The newest to join its stable, the boxy Panda, isn’t chic, and isn’t retro, but is certainly intriguing.
It keeps to compact ‘light car’ dimensions, but adds in a square-cornered interior perfect for filling with stuff.
It also offers a compact SUV-like stance in this diesel-only Trekking model, although there’s a big gap in price between this and the $16,000 drive-away Pop that opens the range.
So in a market already plump with it’s own offerings, does the Fiat Panda have what it takes to stand out?
Quality: In this market segment - small, cheapish, light cars - expectations of interior quality can be low. But the Panda comes well-assembled with a collection of often clever, interior trims and plastics.
Instead of soft-touch surfaces, there’s properly hard-wearing dash and door plastics. The glossy audio and climate controls are well fitted and surprisingly scratch resistant.
The repeated ‘PANDA’ motif on dash and doors is a clever touch. With light-coloured trim comes beige vinyl door inserts that mark easily but are just as easy to wipe clean.
Comfort: The Panda’s exterior dimensions fall between the 500 and the Punto, but thanks to a tall roof and upright seating it feels more open and spacious inside.
Up front, there is in fact room 'to swing a cat', and back-seaters will enjoy a tall roofline, great side visibility, and plenty of foot space.
Knee-room in the back however is a little pinched for the longer shanks of teenage passengers (and the driver may need to slide a tad closer to the wheel than they'd like).
A steering wheel that adjusts for tilt only (not reach) won’t suit all arms, but the most favorable aspect of this interior is the high hip-point for easy entry and exit.
Equipment: The Trekking wears the biggest price-tag of the Panda range (blame the diesel premium).
To soften the blow it comes with a leather wrapped gear-knob and multi-function steering wheel, front fog-lights, a heated windscreen, roof rails, front power windows, climate control and heated front seats.
There's also remote central locking, 15-inch alloy wheels, rear park sensors and tough-guy body styling with unique front and rear bumper inserts, wheel-arch mouldings and door bump-strips.
Audio is provided by a six-speaker CD/AM/FM/MP3 capable system with 3.5mm and USB inputs, plus Bluetooth phone connectivity. This test car also came with an optional TomTom navigation unit for $540.50.
Storage: Lift open the tall tailgate and there’s a very handy 225 litres of cargo volume, not a bad effort in this class and able to handle a hefty family grocery shop with room to spare.
Drop the 60:40 split rear seats, and although there’s no flat floor, there is a handy 870 litres of storage and enough room to throw in an adult’s bike without having to disassemble it.
In the cabin there’s cup and bottle holders aplenty, plus a huge open cubby in front of the front passenger as well as a lidded glovebox.
ON THE ROAD
Driveability: Despite just 55kW of power at 4000 rpm, the Panda Trekking has a certain ‘fizz’ on road.
It's the torque that's responsible. With a strong 190Nm of torque from just 1500rpm, this petite box on wheels has real verve.
Keep the engine between 2000 and 3000rpm and the Trekking feels like it could duck and weave through city traffic all day long without breaking into a sweat.
It's actually quite a bit of fun to row around.
But it has its quirks and can be curiously dimwitted at times. Like, the shift indicator will suggest fifth gear at 60km/h, but do it, and it will immediately suggest a downshift to fourth.
The gear-shift itself is light, vague in its action, but smooth and well matched to the light and forgiving clutch.
Out of town, the Panda Trekking is surprisingly competent. It will happily cruise at the legal limit, but the lack of cruise control is frustrating on long trips.
Despite that rich torque band and a tacho showing 2500 rpm at 100km/h, hills or overtaking necessitate a downshift or two.
Refinement: At idle there’s no mistaking the distinct diesel clatter from under the bonnet, and shuffling around town gives off plenty of agricultural-sounding engine din.
That’s completely at odds with the Panda’s highway behaviour. At higher speeds, holding constant revs, the Panda is surprising hushed, keeping road and engine noise at bay and with only a faint wind rustle around the a-pillars.
For city drivers, it comes with a stop/start system that is quick to spring into action, but can get itself caught. On a handful of occasions it would crank, pause then resume cranking before starting - just a half-second delay, but a little disconcerting.
Ride and Handling: Underneath the Trekking is a slightly higher-riding version of the regular Panda’s MacPherson front and torsion-beam rear suspension.
With chunky sidewall tyres, it's nicely compliant and makes the Panda one of the more comfortable light cars around.
All that bump absorbency does mean that the Panda is happy to lean when cornering, and there's some predictable understeer if you're rushing things.
That doesn’t make it any less fun though - and you don’t need to be 'flat strap' to enjoy the strong engine and light-footed but playful handling.
And if you're getting around tight city car parks (the Panda turns on a penny), there’s a City mode for the otherwise 'weighty' electrically-assisted steering.
At the push of a button the wheel becomes super-light - you can twirl it with a single finger - making slotting into tight spaces a breeze.
Braking: No surprises here: light weight and a cost-conscious build means the Panda pulls up via ventilated front discs, but makes do with rear drums.
Braking is smooth, but, after three hard stops in a row, stopping distances began to extend and the car became a little less secure as it slowed.
ANCAP rating: Not tested.
Safety features: Dual front, full-length curtain and front seat side airbags join ABS brakes, brake assist and stability control which includes the Traction + system for maintaining grip on loose surfaces.
All seats feature three point seatbelts and adjustable head restraints, front occupants also benefit front active head restraints and height adjustable belts with pre-tensioners and load limiters.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years, 150,000km
Service costs: Service intervals are set at 15,000km or 12 months, whichever occurs first. Fiat does not yet offer fixed-price servicing, so consult your dealer.
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY
Peugeot 2008 Outdoor ($31,990) - Peugeot’s conceptually similar front-wheel-drive, diesel, manual only 2008 Outdoor is more expensive. It’s also larger (but lower) more powerful and more frugal.
There’s more equipment into the deal, and a slick built-in touch-screen infotainment system, but the oddly positioned gauges are an aquired taste. (see 2008 reviews)
Fiat Punto Lounge ($21,800) - Fiat would be naive to think some competition didn’t come from within. There’s no diesel engine for Punto, and the lower hatchback style isn’t quite as easy to load and unload.
Lounge models do come standard with an automated manual though, and edge out the Trekking with a touch more equipment. The thrust of the diesel is missing, as is the commanding driving position. (see Punto reviews)
Kia Soul+ CRDi ($27,990) - One of Kia’s less prominent models is also one of its standouts. Clever design, roomy interior, performance that blows the Trekking away and a strong features list are big ticks.
Behind the wheel, it isn't as much fun to throw around, and there’ll be a new model arriving soon. Like the Panda, it isn’t really an SUV, but with dimensions that closely mimic the 2008 we beg to differ. (see Soul reviews)
Note: all prices are Manufacturer’s List Price and do not include dealer delivery or on-road costs.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The Panda is a niche offering, no question about it, but it holds its own against a widely varied range of competitors, many of which are little niche-fillers themselves.
It's quirky, full of personality, and fun.
The Panda Trekking, the most expensive of the stable, isn’t for all tastes but its cheeky 'anti-icon' style will be sure to win some buyers.
For those seeking more tangible merits, there’s useful interior space, compact exterior dimensions and frugal fuel bills.
City comfort is phenomenal, highway comfort is serene and, up against the likes of the Trax and EcoSport, the value equation remains pretty strong. As a second car, really, it's a cracker.
It's no five-star buy, but there is something about the Panda that is strangely enticing. Check one out and you’ll see what we mean.
Pricing (excludes on-roads except where noted)
- Fiat Panda Pop manual - $16,500 drive-away
- Fiat Panda Easy manual - $19,000
- Fiat Panda Easy auto - $20,500
- Fiat Panda Lounge auto - $22,500
- Fiat Panda Trekking - $24,000