The Fiat Panda Lounge.
The Fiat Panda Lounge.

Road test: Fiat Panda not cuddly but cute enough for loving

WE'RE still recovering from the "pandemonium". It's not that our experience was distressing, nor were we in a state of bedlam. Nope, we had a close encounter with a Fiat Panda.

While we weren't up close and personal with the real things in south central China, we did manage to spend some time in the Fiat variety.

This Panda is less than 3.7 metres long, 1650mm wide and 1550mm tall.

It may not be quite as cute as its animal kingdom namesake, the Fiat Panda does grow on you. As we recently found out…

Comfort

Personality shines within the Panda cabin. There is a squared theme which is adopted in the dash, driver's instruments and seat patterns. Similarly proportioned buttons and dials are nicely legible and easy to navigate and use.

One of the few operational issues is using the high beam at night, with the little blue dash light providing intense and distracting illumination.

The driver has a nice little chunky steering wheel, although it only has height adjustment, but the pew can be jacked up or down.

Both front seats are broad and spongy, the seating position high and there is even room for adults in the back seat, thanks to the Panda's upright design.

Leg and knee room can be impeded if those in the front push back, but with some generosity four can be carried without any complaining and we managed two child seats without a problem.

On the road

To be fair, we didn't get off to an enjoyable start.

Fiat's automatic was frustratingly peculiar. We've had the same issue in the Panda's 500 and Punto siblings…jerky gear changes as the robotised manual swaps cogs.

Just getting the Panda into gear can be a challenge initially with the H-shaped shifts between neutral, reverse and then into gear, but after a few days we warmed to the experience and it became lots of fun.

Be kind under acceleration and the gear changes can be smoother, and the pace generated by the 875cc two-cylinder turbocharged engine is astounding. It really punches well above its weight.

We even took the Panda on a challenging twisty trek and shuffling the quirky shifter across into manual mode it climbed and descended with impressive agility.

Steering is light and can be made even lighter with the "City" button to make easy use of car parks, although it's direct enough and the Panda doesn't mind being thrown around in opposing directions.

It was generally well behaved. The only blemish was from the squeaky reverberating dash every time under acceleration at low revs.

What do you get?

Among the standard "Lounge" kit are 15-inch alloys, daytime running lamps, climate controlled air con, electric front windows with winders in the back, six-speaker CD stereo with Bluetooth, USB and auxiliary connectivity, along with five-star safety with six airbags, electronic stability program and anti-lock brakes.

Other options

For those looking some something a little different, there is the Honda Jazz Hybrid ($22,990) and Skoda Fabia Monte Carlo ($21,990) but it is really up against the new convoy of sub-compact SUVs like the Nissan Juke (from $21,990), Peugeot 2008 (from $21,990), Ford EcoSport (from $20,790) and Holden Trax (from $23,490).

Running costs

Official figures rate the little two-cylinder at an ultra-thrifty 4.1 litres for every 100km, but we averaged above six on our test.

That was with some spirited driving and some highway kilometres, not the Panda's most natural habitat.

Servicing and insurance should be at the cheaper end of the scale.

Practicality

Got stuff? The Panda comes prepared with 14 storage spaces.

There are cup holders in the console and spots for small bottles in the doors (large ones don't fit), while a big opening in the dashboard is great for a whole range of gear.

Below that is a conventional glovebox for hiding things like iPods and MP3 players.

Boot space is reasonable at 225 litres, but it's when you drop the 60-40 split-fold seats that it unveils 870 litres of space which is two metres in length. Trip to Ikea anyone?

Under the boot is a space-saver spare which improves load carrying but does restrict speeds to 80kmh if you have a flat.

Funky factor

Quirky and fun, the Panda generates plenty of smiles.

It's blocky and different. It has a lovely little bulge in the bonnet, and interesting proportions from various angles…and looks pretty sharp in the metal. It won't please everyone, but it is a standout in the crowd.

The lowdown

The Panda joins a genre which has gone from zero to hero. It fits within the sub-compact SUV segment which now has five entrants, one year ago there were none.

Yet this little high-riding wagon has ample personality to stand out from the crowd.

The two-cylinder petrol engine is much stronger than the figures suggest, and it's amazing how quickly this appealing little package finds a place in your heart.

What matters most

What we liked: Fun to drive, bigger inside than it looks, quirky and interesting styling.

What we'd like to see: Better automatic transmission, cruise control, larger bottle holders in the doors.

Warranty and servicing: Three year/150,000km warranty. Maintenance is annually, with oil and filters at every 15,000km or 12 months with servicing every two years or 30,000km. Roadside assist is three years or 150,000km.

VITAL STATISTICS

Model: Fiat Panda Lounge.

Details: Five-door compact front-wheel drive hatch.

Engine: 0.9-litre TwinAir turbocharged in-line two-cylinder petrol generating maximum power of 63kW @ 5500rpm and peak torque of 145Nm @ 1900rpm.

Transmissions: Five-speed robotised manual.

Consumption: 4.1 litres/100km (combined average).

CO2: 95 grams/km.

Bottom line: $22,500.


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