An interesting mix of squares and curves certainly makes the new Fiat Panda stand clear of the crowd

An interesting mix of squares and curves certainly makes the new Fiat Panda stand clear of the crowd

Fiat’s onslaught on the Australian market continues. Keen on becoming much more than an interesting niche player, the Italian auto giant with a long history of design flair and sportiness is now importing the Panda. Joining the oh-so-cute Fiat 500 and the relatively conservative Fiat Punto, the Panda is definitely out of the ordinary in its looks.

Fiat Panda has been made since 1980, with over six million built to date, but this is its first time it has migrated down under. The current model was introduced in Italy late in 2011 for the 2012 model year.

The interior is dressed up with a shape Fiat has named the ‘Squircle’. How many of them can you count?

The interior is dressed up with a shape Fiat has named the ‘Squircle’. How many of them can you count?

For many years the Fiat logo has been a trapezoid within a circle, with the trapezoid having rounded corners. Given that most other marques seem determined to have an oval badge it’s good to see Fiat take its own direction.

Panda’s stylists have taken the trapezoid and widened its lower surface to give it a regular shape. After a glass or three of vino, someone decided the shape is part square and part circle – and dreamt up a new word in honour of the occasion. The word is ‘Squircle’. Can’t say that word rolls off our tongues with ease at this stage, but it may grow on us.

The Fiat Squircle is hinted at on the exterior, but is used in numerous areas inside, including the instrument surrounds, steering wheel centre, door handles, speaker housing, even the drink holders. We like the look for the bouncy cheery nature of the shapes.

Body design has a standout nature, something that’s not easy as the Panda had to be voluminous and practical. It’s not easy to produce flair within these tight guidelines.

Fiat Panda comes in the company’s familiar model range of base Pop, midrange Easy and topline Lounge. Pop is the price leader and Fiat Australia is asking only $16,500, which is a driveaway price. None of the others are driveaway so their prices increase significantly.

There’s also a fascinating version called the Panda Trekking. This has the appearance of a small SUV, with raised ride height, big roof racks and door cladding. It’s driven only through the front wheels, but grip on dirt roads, and perhaps at the beach, is improved by a sophisticated traction control system.

The driveline is familiar from other Fiat models, particularly the new Fiat 500 Cinquecento. Indeed, the Panda could be described as a Fiat 500 with a different body and the convenience of back doors.

Engines are a turbo-petrol 875 cc twin-cylinder unit with 63 kW of power and 145 Nm of torque, the latter at just 1900 revs. This multiple-award winning engine is fitted to the Panda Easy and Lounge.

A 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine is an old design and achieves only 51 kW and 102 Nm. It’s installed only in the Panda Pop.

A 1.3-litre turbo-diesel, gives you only 55 kilowatts, but its torque is a strong 190 Nm that arrives at only 1500 rpm. It is standard in the Trekking but not offered in the others.

The 1.2 petrol and the diesel come only with a five-speed manual gearbox. The 875 cc turbo-petrol comes with the same manual, but the gearbox can also be specified with the self-shifting Dualogic version of that tranny in the Easy, Dualogic is standard in the Trekking.

Even the lowest model Pop gets the sophisticated Blue&Me system developed by Microsoft and Fiat that uses voice activation and synchronises with various music devices and smartphones. Tom-Tom navigation is an option and slips into a built-in slot on the dash.

Performance from the 1.2-litre petrol engine in the low-cost model is adequate rather than exciting, but it’s willing enough and many will be satisfied with it.

The happy little twin-cylinder engine is one of our favourites because it has a great note and just loves big revs in a very Italian manner. As a bonus, this is one of the world’s cleanest engines, emitting less than 100 grams of CO2 on the official driving cycle.

The pick of the bunch is the 1.3-litre turbo-diesel in the Trekking. After minimal turbo lag it give excellent acceleration that makes for safe overtaking.

Ride comfort is good though there’s a fair bit of road roar on coarse-chip surfaces.

Handling is safe and secure, with these little cars able to hold onto the road at speeds much higher than those likely to be attempted by most owners.

Panda only got four stars in European crash testing. However the local importer says it would have been classed as a five-star vehicle had the Euro models been equipped with ESC – all Australian imports have this feature.

Italian style makes the Fiat Panda stand out from the somewhat staid vehicles that are generally competing in this market area. Combine that with a good range of models and engines and low prices and the Panda bears consideration on many different varieties of short lists.

The complete Fiat Panda range is:
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)
Note: With the exception of the Pop which is a driveaway price, these prices do not include government or dealer delivery charges. Contact your local Fiat dealer for driveaway prices on these models.

About Ewan Kennedy

Ewan Kennedy, a long-time car enthusiast, was Technical Research Librarian with the NRMA from 1970 until 1985. He worked part-time as a freelance motoring journalist from 1977 until 1985, when he took a full-time position as Technical Editor with Modern Motor magazine. Late in 1987 he left to set up a full-time business as a freelance motoring journalist. Ewan is an associate member of the Society of Automotive Engineers - International. An economy driving expert, he set the Guinness World Record for the greatest distance travelled in a standard road vehicle on a single fuel fill. He lists his hobbies as stage acting, travelling, boating and reading.
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