The non-500 Fiat that is only slightly livid
While accepting that the product name-game can be exceedingly tough for some carmakers, Iain Robertson ponders over the marginally annoying method of drawing attention to an enhanced Panda.
Fiat, now partnered inextricably and mostly inexplicably with the sizeable Chrysler Corporation, has a big problem on its plate. The once-loved and admired manufacturer of the world’s consummate small cars has become imbued in 500-ness. It does appear that having gained some positive responses about its retrospectively-styled 500 model, the company is seeing fit to name every remaining car in its fast diminishing line-up, ‘500’. All, that is, except one.
That one is Panda, which is either a cuddly, don’t-play-with-it-or-you’ll-never-play-the-piano-again, monochromatic oriental bear possessing bamboo-breath, or a pseudo inexpensive, back-to-basics, small family car with a self-conscious past. In case you wondered, in the best interests of self-preservation, it is the latter to which I refer, although one of the downsides of inexpensive automotive self-defence instinct lies in that vehicle’s ability to rot through comprehensively. There are not many of the original Pandas, let alone the enigmatic 4×4 versions, left in circulation, even though a few have been preserved for perpetuity in snowdrifts and mountain glaciers around Europe.
Much like those former owners electing to ignore where they last left their original Pandas, I have an increasingly rigid soft spot for the car. In fact, the previous generation Panda 4×4, notably not the original, gave me great joy on the immensely destructive Salisbury Plains a few years ago, when I attempted to smash one to smithereens, to no avail, on several tank testing routes. The car was feeble on-road but, for the one per cent of owners that might indulge in some off-road derring-do, it was a veritable giant-killer.
Actually, I am being a tad unfair to the Latin tiddler, partly because it was so devoid of space for my long legs and its foot-pedals were better suited to the size-seven penny loafers of the likes of Frankie Dettori, as opposed to my northern European size-fourteens, that I was forced to drive it in my socks. It is not a good look, especially off-road. Its suspension was firm (but unforgiving). Its handling was taut (but top-heavy). Its build quality was sturdy (but very cheap). Yet, it was an engaging little chap that possessed a Fiat non-self-detonating type of resilience that I had not experienced since owning a Fiat 131 Mirafiori in the late-1970s (Fiat always built unbreakable engines…a pity the bodywork was less well considered).
Therefore, my first concern for the latest iteration, the Fiat Panda Cross (or Angry, Irritated, or the best yet, the Fiat Fractious) was that I might not be accommodated by it. Well, the first surprise is that there is more than enough fore, aft and up and down adjustment of the driver’s seat (the passenger seat does not do the height trick), allied to the rake and reach of its chunky little tiller, to allow me space…well, enough to fit like a glove anyway.
Sticking with the interior for a moment, it reflects the ‘squircle’ (square-circle) styling nuances, with which the Panda line has been graced since its inception. As a result, rather quirkily (or, perhaps, that should be ‘squirkily’?) there is an abundance of stylised switchgear and control pads around the dashboard and steering wheel, which might possess some logic, were you a kindergarten, or Tonka Toy, fan. Of course, Fiat is not the only carmaker to pursue this route, as any owner of a pre-1960 MG will attest, its cabin carrying octagonal clues in abundance.
The heavy-handed theme continues externally, both up-front and on the tail. Yet, there is a tremendous sense of appeal that builds the longer you spend time with the Panda Mildly Angry. While it is not pretty, it is cute and, unlike certain, overpriced examples of automotive retrospection (I am thinking of the grotesque, it-ought-to-be-on-a-cathedral-balustrade BMW Mini Countryman), at least the Panda Cantankerous is priced keenly. Mind you, these days, because none of us actually possesses any hard cash, list prices are becoming considerably less of an issue, especially as carmakers and their banks are more than capable of providing us with a new version of ‘toxic debt’, in the form of judiciously underwritten Personal Contract Plans and private lease programmes. Still, it satisfies weirdly the British predilection, no, necessity, to be seen to ‘own’ high-end stuff that we cannot actually afford.
Sorry, mini-rant over (can you see how infuriated I am with the Panda Cross?). Strangely, I find myself attracted to its external detailing. The small red towing points within the front lower bumper offer a sense of purpose familiar to motorsport fanatics. The ‘metal’ protective plates fore and aft might be cursory but the chunky little alloy wheels have a serious look to them, especially in the dark grey finish, set against the very countrified bottle green paintwork.
While the glazing of today’s Panda is now slightly curvier than the all-flat glass of the Columbus-era original, when a ‘flat world’ was in vogue, the view out is good, if slightly obscured when trying to make over-the-shoulder decisions. Yet, the door mirrors make up for the blind spots, offering a decently broad viewing surface. For a fairly small car, at least its boot is both practical in size and modestly spacious.
Driving it is not the painful reminder of Pandas past. The ride quality is still firm and poor road surfaces can induce some worrying middle-aged body part vibrations, not on the car, I should add. Yet, its directional stability is sound, the steering (not in the ultra-lightweight ‘City’ setting) is pleasantly weighted and responsive, the road holding is excellent, while the Panda’s overall handling compromise is not as bad as it might have been for an off-road focussed variant. Once again, I found the Panda Cross to be highly engaging and fun to drive. Yes. Even irritable me can indulge in a sense of soft-core enjoyment.
The real test would lie in this car’s competence in an off-road environment and heading for an autumnally challenging country estate, near Cirencester, it would be fair to state that I put it through its paces. There is no 4×4 button, or lever, to engage, as the transmission deals with traction needs automatically and electro-hydraulically. Progress on particularly slimy surfaces was adequate, thanks to all-season tyres, although important feedback through the steering wheel was absent at times. However, the Panda Cross’s party trick is its unique Descent Control system.
Contrary to everything that I have been taught over the years, from 4×4 luminaries such as Land Rover’s Roger Crathorne, or even the team from Jeep, selecting neutral, managing the steering but allowing the Panda to drive gently downhill at its own rate was not just uncanny and mildly unnerving but it was also the only way to carry out the task. I remain amazed by its competence. Taken to a second off-road ground in a massive gravel pit, the car traversed rocky outcroppings, forded quite deep ponds and proved eminently manoeuvrable in sand and negotiating surfaces that a heftier 4×4 would simply sink into. Top marks to Panda Cross!
Of course, as less than one per cent of all 4×4 buyers actually dare to depart terra firma, it is the on-road performance of the two models I sampled that will be of greatest import. The much-vaunted 875cc ‘TwinAir’ two cylinder petrol unit would not be my powerhouse of choice, despite being provided (I believe) with a better home in the Panda than the aforementioned 500. It is zesty enough but its fuel economy is not as enthralling as it ought to be. Yet, the 1.3-litre turbo-diesel provides the earthy gruntiness desired of a 4×4, while also returning around 50mpg in normal use. It is a raucous little beggar but it zips along quite nicely and, even though its gearbox lacks the 6th ratio of the petrol variant, it is geared leggily enough not to be a detraction. Top speeds of either are around the 100mph mark, while they will despatch the 0-60mph benchmark in around 12.5 seconds.
Conclusion: Overall, I have to state that I am mightily impressed by the Panda Cross. It is a most engaging and focussed little car that is surprisingly well built and is unlikely to suffer the tin-worm issues of its forebears. As to the value for money proposition, it is not a car without rivals, even within its own portals, with 4×4 and Trekking versions, but they are few and far between. At £15,945 for the Panda Cross (£1,000 more for the diesel), it offers decent value and a most satisfying range of strengths. I like it, a lot, and I am not angry about it.