TESTDRIVE: Fiat Panda 1.2

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Funky Fiat - Steve Sharpe drives the little Panda

Fiat’s Panda is Europe’s best-selling supermini and this latest incarnation, which has been on sale since February 2012, is bigger, roomier, safer and more fuel efficient than its predecessors.

The supermini / city car market is one of the most hotly- contested segments of recent years, as traditional little hatchbacks have been joined by a new breed of city cars, like VW’s up!, Skoda’s Citigo and Hyundai’s i10, which have upped the ante as far as levels of comfort, economy and performance are concerned. The choice is a wide one.

For this most recent model Fiat knew that they had to take all that into account, providing a versatile, flexible little car that is a jack of all trades – an attractive, sophisticated city car with room for five, a range of economical engines with a host of large car features.

The new Panda is longer, wider and taller than the car it replaced, with more space for passengers and their luggage.

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 more legroom to rear passengers. There’s also a rear sliding seat option for the first time, which adds flexibility to the rear layout.

The new car is also 66mm wider, which means it can seat three passengers reasonably comfortably in the rear.

It makes for a funky little hatchback, chunkier than the previous model and solid looking, but also more curvy. The extra windows at the rear give it a mini MPV look as well.

The interior certainly matches the outside look for funkiness.

The striking dashboard is like no other. The passenger side of the dash is framed by a wide, flat, pale frame, with an open storage space right in front of the passenger. The glove compartment is underneath.

Fiat say there are 14 storage compartments in the cabin, so there should be enough space for bits and bobs.

There are further opportunities too – options include a front passenger seat that folds into a table.

The heating controls and media readouts are housed in glossy black plastic, while the gearstick, which is more like a aeroplane joystick – is positioned just below.

The pale / dark contrast colour scheme is continued throughout the cabin, with the matching seats and door inserts.

A mosaic pattern on the upholstery cleverly mirrors the centre section of the dashboard.

It looks extremely smart, young and modern, but it’s not exactly the most practical colour scheme for a family hatchback, and you’re likely to need shares in Vanish if you’ve a young family.

The steering wheel is quite large and sort of a squarish shape, and I found it did obscure the speed and rev gauges, which weren’t the clearest indicators in the first place, but most the controls are easy to use and straightforward.

This version is bigger than the previous Panda so there are good levels of room inside.

The Panda’s tall body ensures plenty of headroom, although the position of the bulky gearstick housing means knee-room is tight for the driver. Legroom is tighter in the back, too.

The Panda’s boot is small but it’s a practical shape and you can fit a couple of overnight backs in there. There is an option of split-folding rear seats if you need more space.

Fiat’s little supermini comes with choice of a number of engines – a 68bhp 1.2-litre petrol, a 0.9 Twinair with 84bhp and a 74bhp 1.3-litre diesel.

The 1.2 petrol version I drove was a decent all-rounder. It’s happiest in and around town, and with light steering, a good turning circle and great visibility all around, it’s up there with the best for manoeuvring in and out of side streets and parking spaces.

It tends to run out of puff when you take it on longer motorway runs but take its limitations into consideration and the little city car proves it can handle longer runs surprisingly well.

I wasn’t looking forward to a late-organised Sharpe family trip across country to Blackpool in the Panda, but although huffing and puffing a little on motorway inclines, the Panda coped well.

It gets noisy on rougher surfaces, engine noise rises while cruising at higher speeds and the wind picks up across the high sides, but it’s never too loud, and the seats are comfortable, too, meaning that we got out after more than 100 miles feeling pretty fresh,actually.

For a tall car it also corners decently, thanks in part to an all-new suspension and a body that’s significantly more rigid than its predecessor.

There’s some roll if you take a corner too sharply but overall it’s well composed, although the light steering doesn’t help feedback from the road.

The Panda is priced in line with its main rivals, rather than undercutting them, so the entry level model is around £9,300, rising to nearly for £16,000 top spec 1.3 model.

Entry-level Pop models aren’t exactly crammed with standard goodies, with a CD player and electric front windows, but moving up to Easy trim adds air-con, a better quality stereo, remote central locking and roof rails.

Lounge models add to the cost but they also get body-coloured exterior trim, alloys and electrically adjustable door mirrors.

It’s pretty much the same story as far as safety features are concerned. Every model comes with front and head airbags, but you have to pay extra for side airbags, and you’ll have to pay to get rear head restraints on Pop-trim cars.

The new Panda can be ordered with the Blue&Me connectivity system to allow owners to sync music players and mobile phones with the car, enabling hands-free control of devices using either voice activation or steering wheel-mounted buttons.

A removable satnav system which clicks into a space on the dash is another option.

But for a car at this price you get a lot for your money with a Panda. Adept at city life, it can also be used for longer trips when it has to, which is a real incentive for those who need it. What it lacks in power on longer distances it makes up for in surprising levels of comfort.

Extremely practical with tons of storage areas, it has competitive economy levels too.

But probably most importantly for a city car, it has a young, funky vibe to it.

The interior is smart and vibrant, with bright colours and edgy design, while the look to the city car has been greatly improved over the last version.

It all makes the Panda a supermini that’s more than a city car, one that’s well worth considering for those looking for a small car that will occasionally go further afield.

Fact file

Fiat Panda 1.2

Engine: 1.2 litre petrol

Transmission: 5-speed manual

0-62mph: 14.2 seconds

Top speed: 102mph

Fuel economy: 54 mpg avg

Price: £12,660 OTR