This Panda goes anywhere; RoadTest In third generation form, Fiat's Panda is not only cuter, but more sensible than ever. JONATHAN CROUCH reports.
It's larger where it matters, yet still small enough for its urban purpose. It's more efficient, yet can offer surprising reserves of performance. And you can make it hi-tech - or specify one that's super-affordable.
The Italians have always done this kind of thing very well. They still do.
Almost every car you can think of on the market can be pigeonholed into a specific market segment. And even if it can't be, it's likely to appeal to a very specific group of customers.
The Panda's different. Though sized and priced as a little citycar, it's so versatile and class-less that it can really function as, well, almost anything you want.
Depending on the flavour you choose, it's a design as suited to city living as it is to the needs of a mountaintop farmer. It can be a hot hatch or eco-conscious transport for Friends Of The Earth. It can be a second vehicle for older empty-nesters. Or the sole car for a rural family.
Less a citycar. More an "essential" car, it is, in the words of one top Fiat executive, "the official car for doing whatever the hell you like".
This is the Italian brand at its very best. This MK2 design dates back to 2003, but other small cars are only just getting around to matching its astonishing efficiency of space.
And, just as they do, along comes this MK3 model, longer, wider, taller, more efficient and in every way cleverer than before.
Functional, solid, intelligent and free spirited, it's still, we're told, a car that thinks outside the box. Let's try it.
There are three main engine choices for Panda people - an entry-level 69bhp petrol 1.2-litre unit, an 85bhp 0.9-litre petrol TwinAir powerplant and a 1.3-litre 75bhp Multijet diesel.
Aside from engines and performance, there's plenty else for previous Panda people to appreciate in this third generation design.
For a start, there's much more of a "big car" feel to the way it drives, thanks to suspension tweaks, greater torsional stiffness and a wider track.
The result is that it turns into corners more sharply, rounding them with far less bodyroll than before, an experience aided by greater sensitivity from the electric power steering.
It's a great deal quieter than before on major routes at cruising speeds, too - in fact, Fiat says that cabin noise has been halved so you can have a proper conversation with someone while cruising at the legal limit.
As for the rest well as before many of the underpinnings are shared with those of Fiat's other, more fashion-conscious citycar offering, the 500 - which is no bad thing as that car is a pretty fun steer, especially in an urban environment - somewhere this Panda is just as at home.
True, the five-speed gearbox could be a little more precise, but you'll appreciate the way this car now takes even the nastier small urban bumps in its stride. And delivers neat little touches like the steering's "City" mode option to increase the assistance it gives at parking speeds, so that you can use the tight 9.3m turning circle more easily.
There's was something of a feeling of tiny MPV about the previous generation version of this car, and there still is.
It remains a tall car, with a vertical tail, a five-door-only shape and a large glass area, bigger than before (slightly longer, wider and taller) but sat upon the same wheelbase, so the roadway footprint remains basically unaltered. As for the friendly new look, it's based upon what Fiat's designers call "a squarical" theme, with rounded rectangles in vogue everywhere from the headlamps to the front air intake, from the wheelarches to that trademark extra third rearward side window.
You'll probably be paying somewhere in the pounds 9,000 to pounds 13,000 range for your Panda, once you've allowed for a few well-chosen extras.
Think carefully about whether you really need to pay the pounds 1,200 premium to graduate from the entry-level 8v 1.2-litre petrol model to a car like the 85bhp turbo TwinAir petrol variant I've been testing here - and there's an even bigger pounds 2,200 jump to go from the base variant to a 1.3-litre diesel Panda with the same spec.
Many customers will be better off sticking with the entry-level model and spending any remaining funds on some well chosen extras.
Loved by small car people the world over for more than thirty years, the Panda continues to define everything that a very compact multi-purpose model should be.
It's had to evolve of course, with more efficient engines and clever technology. But its heart remains simple, functional and innovative.
Which is why, while other citycars will please only citycar folk, you could imagine this one being bought by, well, just about a nyone.
VERSATILE: The Fiat Pianda Mk 3, and (below) a glimpse into the stylish interior