Postman Pat's hatchback of choice has returned, replete with a brace of capable off-roader derivatives with heaps of go-anywhere attitude. Can the Panda's diversified line-up allow Fiat to increase its foothold at the budget end of the market?
The Panda, 4x4 and Cross follow a similar formula as before. You get a vibrant city car that's fun to drive, but then, with the 4x4 versions, a sense of adventure and off-road capability for much less price than an actual off-roader. The newcomer's exterior styling suggests the Panda's a car that doesn't take itself too seriously (there are few aesthetic individualisation options available) and Fiat's quest to reduce emissions (a move in line with efforts by the global motor industry) sees a 2-cylinder 875 cc turbopetrol engine under the bonnet.
Can a 2-cylinder do the job?
Yes, it can. You either get a 63 kW/120 Nm engine or, in the top spec Cross, 66 kW/120 Nm. Those outputs are on par with the 3-cylinder engines it competes with in cars like the Renault Sandero and the Volkswagen Up!. The engine sounds quite rorty (in an entertaining way) and apart from peppy performance it delivers round town, there's reasonable power available out on the open road too; the early torque delivery courtesy of the petrol motor gives the Fiat reasonable overtaking capabilities.
The 2-cylinder turbopetrol provides the Panda just (about) enough open-road overtaking ability.
The engine is mated with either a 5-speed manual (in the regular Panda) or a six-speed manual in the 4x4 and Cross models. Fuel efficiency is claimed to be the 2-cylinder's strong point with a claimed figure of between 4.1 and 4.9 L/100 km. Our trip of 200 km, which included some off-roading and steep climbing in the hills of Pietermaritzburg yielded a less-than-stellar 8.9 L/100 km, however. I ran a previous generation Panda for a couple years and averaged out at 5.9 L/100 km, so if you end up with more than that, you may feel hard done by.
Fiat has ensured that the Panda's cheeky exterior design cues are echoed inside the cabin. The finished product is full of squircles ("square circles"), oblong air vents and cubed surfaces. The door trim is made from a durable plastic, which, upon closer inspection, was found to sport countless P, A, N, D and A letters on its surface. The cabin isn't what you would call premium, but at least the panels are not scratchy or gaudy-looking. The lack of reach adjustment on the steering wheel makes the perfect driving position very difficult to find, though.
No derivative econobox detailing in the Panda's interior; the quality of the finish is unremarkable, but feels suitably hard-wearing.
The passenger space, meanwhile, is cosy (as you'd expect from a city car), but it accommodated 4 adults with reasonable ease. What's more, the luggage bay is one of the biggest in its class (at 225 litres) and the rear seats can easily be folded down to provide no less than 870 litres of utility space.
In all but the entry-level Easy-spec Panda, a USB port and a smartphone cradle (at the top of the dash) are fitted. For those who choose to use their 'phones as in-car touchscreens, Fiat avails an app available that allows applications such as navigation, a fuel efficiency monitor and media playback.
It's a rarity in this segment to find a car with stability control, but the Panda comes standard with it as well as ABS and EBD. A compliment of at least 4 airbags can also be found in the cabin. A tyre pressure monitor is also standard across the range and all (but the Easy) have front and rear parking sensors. As with most Fiats, hill-hold is also standard on the Panda.
The safety specification of the Panda range is extensive – it even includes stability control.
Pricing and warranty
Pricing is quite competitive (the range starts at R184 900) although the standard Panda may find it difficult going against stalwarts like the Toyota Aygo, plus the aforementioned Sandero and Up! The Panda does trump the competition with its 3-year/100 000 km warranty and 3-year/100 000 service plan, however.
Like with its predecessors, fun, nimble handling is still inherent to the Panda's platform. It's an eager city car; in fact, it's almost as if that deep exhaust note wills the driver to point and squirt the Fiat round town. The ride is surprisingly good for a short wheelbase car and it handled the pothole ridden roads around the sugar cane fields of KZN with aplomb.
The Panda off-road derivatives are more than capable of dealing with sporadic low-grip road conditions...
A quick spin around an off-road course in the area proved that short wheelbase cars are the king of climbing. The 4x4 Panda has an automatic all-wheel drive system that sends power to the rear wheels when it deems necessary. The Cross model has selectable off-road modes and a hill descent control mode.
The centre diff can be locked and the rear diff is electronically controlled to provide traction where needed. The Panda popped up and over all in its path, maybe not with the grace of a Land Rover Discovery, but with relative ease. If you regard yourself an outdoor enthusiast who likes to traverse the bundu from time to time, the Fiat will probably exceed your expectations...