by Chris Adamson
While its animal namesake might consume food at a vast rate, about 30kg of bamboo a day, move at incredibly slow speeds and be among the rarest species on the planet, the Fiat Panda is particularly fuel efficient, has boundless reserves of energy and is one of the most populous vehicles on the road – some six and a half million have been made.
New five-door Panda, which cost 800 million Euros to develop, has grown slightly over its predecessor, Fiat adding 66mm to the width, 11mm to the height and 109mm to the length - the latter mainly at the rear to provide more luggage space (225 litres) - and a few extra millimetres of leg room for the rear seat occupants.
This is all finished in a soft cube body that is now more sculpted, rounded and friendly looking than the original brick on which the Panda dynasty was founded.
It still has the tall body and short overhangs but now there is a dash more personality with softer corners, a more detailed bonnet and flared wheels arches.
Inside Fiat is definitely going for the fun and funky vote, especially with a hard textured plastic on many of the surfaces that has a grain created by using the word ‘panda’ over and over again.
The cabin treatment centres around a variety of two colour combinations to give it a playful atmosphere that makes you smile the moment you get in.
Unfortunately the short upright dashboard is fitted with controls that look as if they have been stuck on and some of the surfaces reflect the light at annoying angles.
In the past Panda has been regarded strictly as a four-seater, as are most others in this category, but with the new model with its extra girth there is the option of a five-seat version for a very modest £100 and Fiat executives are already expecting this to account for half of all sales.
This requires the installation of a 60/40 split rear seat and a middle seat-belt. A practical demonstration proves that you can fit three adults into the rear seat, but they have to be very good friends and won’t expect to be going very far as it’s hip to hip accommodation.
The standard seating options are a one-piece bench seat or a 50/50 split that enable the load space - now entered over a lower sill and a wider hatch - to be enlarged to 870 litres by folding the seat backs flat. The 50/50 version will be available in September with a sliding seat mechanism that increases the carrying area to 260 litres
Under the bonnet it’s a mix of old and new.
Mainstay, based almost entirely on price, will be the surprisingly quiet and refined 1.2 litre eight valve FIRE petrol engine that appears to be more energetic and quicker on the road than the paper statistics would suggest.
It is still good for over 54mpg but these days you might expect Fiat to have got the emissions down to less than the quoted 120g/km.
Its returning companion is the lone 1.3 litre Multi-Jet diesel which will only feature in small numbers as diesel still doesn’t sell well in this sector but should be considered if you want to get more than 70mpg.
Joining these are a pair of Twin-Air two cylinder petrol engines, the award winning turbo-charged version developing 85bhp and, getting its first application anywhere, a normally aspirated version which will arrive later in the year.
These are impressive little units and have already shown their abilities in the likes of the Fiat 500. Along with the Multi-jet turbo diesel they come with Stop and Start and a Gear Shift Indicator to help fuel economy.
Although the New Panda has grown in size, the use of low weight, high-strength materials means that it hasn’t put on any kilograms and is stiffer than before for not only improved safety but also less body roll on cornering.
Together with a revised lighter and stronger suspension system this enhances the engaging handling characteristics of the New Panda making it enjoyable to be behind the wheel, certainly in the short-term, as it bounds along country lanes.
Despite its compact dimensions New Panda is well supplied with safety features such as ABS with Brake Assist, Electronic Stability Programme, Hill Holder and a smart fuelling system that prevents miss fuelling
From September it will also be available with a Low Speed Collision Mitigation system that automatically applies the brakes in the event of an impending impact.
New Panda comes in three trim levels Pop, Easy and Lounge with very small price steps between each of them. The Easy adding £650 and the Lounge £500 which represents extra value compared to the cost of the additional features at each upgrade.
Every version comes with a radio / CD audio system with MP3 player, height adjustable steering wheel and electric front windows. The best selling Easy models also include air conditioning, rear head restraints, six speaker audio, remote central locking and roof rails.
FACTFILE: Fiat Panda 1.2 Easy
Lounge contributes body coloured door handles, heated and electrically adjustable door mirrors and 15inch alloy wheels, but doesn’t include electric rear windows.
Fiat has a long list of optional extras and trim packs to choose from including a large panoramic Skydome glass sunroof – which is proving popular with advance orders – tinted glass, rear parking sensors, automatic climate control and Fiat’s Blue & Me infotainment system with Bluetooth and satellite navigation,
Fiat hopes that the new look Panda will broaden its appeal with its practicality, affordability and sense of humour and it certainly has all this and more. Prices start at a very competitive £8,900 rising to £12,250.