FIAT PANDA BARES ITS TALENT.
The Panda was the first sign that Fiat was fighting back after years in the doldrums and focusing on its strengths which is to make world-beating family cars but you really need to drive it to appreciate its brilliance.
The facts and figures are that it is a proper four-door, four-seater hatchback priced from less than £6,500. It has good engines because there is nothing wrong with the 1.1 and 1.2 litre petrol units and I am lost in admiration for the fantastic 1.3 litre Multijet diesel. It is compact on the outside (it's less than 12 feet long), but roomy inside, is cheap to run, well equipped and safe and even looks quite chirpy.
But its is only when you drive it and experience the extraordinary maturity it has which is lacking in most other price rivals that you understand what a breakthrough the Panda has been.
By that I mean it rides far more smoothly and with much more fluidity, more sophistication if you like, not just of any car in its own class, but of many of those in the category above. It absorbs bumps far better than anything else I have ever driven in this price bracket and other than in the worst surfaces, glides over the tarmac. Allied to the smooth ride is an impressive absence of that tiresome NVH - Noise, Vibration and Harshness - which so mars lesser cars. In this respect, the Panda is simply in a league of its own because, thanks to brilliant engineering on the bodyshell and installation of the mechanical parts, the Fiat is quiet and vibration free.
More than that, the excellent seats and the slightly raised seating position give better visibility plus the generous glass area which makes the cabin so light and pleasant, all combine to make the Panda a genuine long-distance car.
The interior is much better finished than you might expect of a sub-£6,500 car with quality trim materials and more sophisticated cabin architecture. The gear lever is dashboard-mounted and falls instantly to hand and there is plenty of room too. Equipment levels are generally good and I liked the fact that the passenger side airbag can be de-activated, allowing an infant in a rear-facing child seat to be put there. All get central locking, electric power steering with the 'City' setting which makes turning the wheel much easier at slow speeds, adjustable steering column, electric front windows and an anti-theft immobiliser.
The Panda truly is a four-seater, with wide opening rear doors making access easier than most too. It's not standard across the range, but there is the option of a split rear seat which also slides forward for more luggage room. This is fast becoming a feature on the better cars of this class, such as the Nissan Micra and Citroen C2 and it's definitely a worthwhile idea.
On the engine front, there is a choice of either a 1.1 or 1.2, both of them smooth and surprisingly punchy units, with a 1.3 diesel too. It is a superb engine but there is a price premium of several hundred pounds.
This is an exceptional car and the Panda represents Fiat at its very best.