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Fiat Panda hatchback (2012 – ) expert review

By Andy Pringle, 10th April 2014

The verdict

Fiat is the small car expert and the Panda is one of the most charismatic models on sale, offering fun, no-frills motoring. It’s comfortable, practical and an absolute hoot to drive.

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Expert rating:

3.8

Pros

  • A practical alternative to the Fiat 500
  • Cheap to run
  • Easy to drive in town

Cons

  • Choppy ride comfort
  • Limited rear legroom
  • Desirable TwinAir models are expensive

Full Review

1. Exterior

Fiat knows a thing or two about building small and deeply desirable little runabouts, so if the retro-modern Fiat 500 doesn’t float your boat, then the Panda is an equally charismatic, yet much more practical, alternative. Its boxy proportions and functional, minimalist tendencies echo the car’s utilitarian origins, and they help explain why it’s become so popular with so many different types of people. To further strengthen its appeal, the range also includes a couple of SUV-like models: the 4×4 and Trekking. Only one actually has four-wheel drive, but both sit a little higher off the ground and share the same chunkier and more rugged look.

Our rating: 4

2. Interior

The Volkswagen Up may have raised small car quality to a new level, but the Panda’s cabin shows that the Italians still know how to put a smile on your face. There isn’t much obvious luxury inside, but all the materials are solidly put together and there’s an incredible, yet playful, attention to detail: ’squircle’ graphics frame the stereo speakers and heater controls, for example, and the plastic mouldings (not soft touch, sadly) spell out PANDA – a nice touch. Despite all that, the company hasn’t forgotten the basics and the driving position is still excellent. It’s raised for a commanding view to the front, the thin and upright windscreen pillars allowing excellent visibility, and the high-set gearstick is easy to reach. It’s spot-on for the city.

Our rating: 4

3. Practicality

The Panda is much more practical than many of its city-car rivals, with loads of storage space up front, including two big gloveboxes, as well as 12 other compartments to keep your keys and travel sweets in. The front passenger seat can also be fitted with a backrest that folds down to form a table. Those boxy proportions mean the Panda provides plenty of headroom for lankier members of the family, although legroom in the back is limited. The boot offers 260 litres of space – more than the VW Up/Seat Mii/Skoda Citigo. You can also spec a sliding rear bench that allows you to increase this load area a bit without having to fold the seats flat.

Our rating: 5

4. Ride and handling

The Panda feels fairly eager in the corners, but that tall body also makes it a bit roly-poly – especially in the Trekking model, which is a few inches higher than the regular Panda. To make matters worse, the car’s short wheelbase and firm springs make the high-speed ride feel choppy. Its tall profile can also make the Panda feel unsettled by strong side winds, which could be disconcerting for some drivers. The ‘City’ Mode offers featherweight steering, which is perfect for parking up, but it does feel rather numb at higher speeds.

Our rating: 3

5. Performance

There are three engines available in the Panda. The 1.3-litre Multijet diesel is a solid performer and its strong pull at low revs means it will make sense to those opting for the Panda 4×4. However, the bubbly 0.9-litre Twinair is the headline-grabber, with just two cylinders, CO2 emissions of 99g/km and average economy of almost 70mpg. That makes it one of the most economical city cars – and it is the strongest engine in the Panda range – but it’s very noisy and the Panda is expensive with this engine. Low-cost versions are the best ones to buy, and that’s why we’d recommend the 69bhp 1.2-litre petrol. It may not have engine stop-start, and it’s the slowest engine on paper, but you’ll never be aware of that in everyday use. Its eager nature perfectly suits the car and it’s a lovely motor that you can thrash to death. You’ll get average economy of 57mpg if you treat it gently, though.

Our rating: 4

6. Running costs

The Panda is a reasonably cheap new car, and a lot of car for the money, but there are plenty of other (albeit smaller) city cars on the market. Likewise, although insurance costs won’t break the bank, it’s not hard to find a city car that it will be cheaper to insure. On the other hand, every model provides decent fuel economy and the regular Twinair models have CO2 emissions of less than 100g/km, which equates to no-cost road tax.

Our rating: 4

7. Reliability

The reliability of previous versions of the Fiat Panda has been rather disappointing, but this model feels more impressive. It all seems properly made, for a start, and everything fits well. On top of that, the engines are well established, and the other mechanicals are proven, so we don’t anticipate any major problems.

Our rating: 4

8. Safety

The Fiat Panda has been awarded four out of five stars by Euro NCAP in crash tests, but although every model comes with four airbags and ABS, the standard equipment leaves a little to be desired. For instance, curtain airbags are only optional across the range, while the Trekking and 4×4 models are the only versions to get ESP as standard. You can also specify the City Brake Control system, which can automatically apply the brakes if the car senses a potential collision, either preventing the accident or at least mitigating its effects.

Our rating: 3

9. Equipment

Panda trim levels run from Pop up to Easy and Lounge. Pop models come with power steering, electric front windows, central locking, body-coloured bumpers and a radio/CD player. Easy models add remote central locking, air-con, roof rails and an upgraded stereo, while the top Lounge trim gains 15-inch alloy wheels and electric door mirrors. Trekking and 4×4 models have their own unique trim levels, with unique looks, Bluetooth, ESP and, on the 4×4 models, all-wheel drive. On top of that, there are also plenty of accessories to tempt you, most of which focus on styling, practicality and infotainment.

Our rating: 3

10. Why buy?

The Panda offers honest, unpretentious and fun motoring that doesn’t feel the need to chase the ‘premium’ tag. While many other carmakers are trying to take their city cars upmarket, the Panda proves you can do things differently.

Our rating: 4

Expert review 3.8stars

  • Exterior4
  • Interior4
  • Practicality5
  • Ride and handling3
  • Performance4
  • Running costs4
  • Reliability4
  • Safety3
  • Equipment3
  • Why buy?4

Our recommendations

Pick of the range:

1.2 Easy

Cheaper Pandas make the most sense to buy and this has a good package of kit with our favourite engine

Most economical:

0.9 Twinair

Less than 100g/km CO2 emissions, as well as nearly 70mpg average economy

Best avoided:

1.3 Multijet Lounge

Too dear to recommend. You can get all that’s good about the Panda in a cheaper version

Fiat knows a thing or two about building small and deeply desirable little runabouts