What is it?
There’s always that one relative, which while you love them dearly, always outstays their welcome at Christmas. The automotive equivalent of that relation is the Fiat Panda – a model that continues to plod on with minimal changes (it hasn’t had one major update since its introduction in 2011), yet buyers continue to fall for its charm. Not least in Italy, where it continues to be their best-selling car, and by a significant margin.
But nine years without any major changes is a long time in the automotive world, so can a new hybrid-powered Panda bring this model back to form?
Well, aside from the powertrain, very little. No, it’s what’s under the teeny tiny bonnet that’s the headline here.
But don’t be fooled by the ‘Hybrid’ badging, as this isn’t a full electrified model, but rather a ‘mild-hybrid’, which sees a 12-volt belt-integrated starter generator and battery being integrated into the powertrain – bringing noticeable efficiency benefits.
In true Fiat style, there’s also a new special edition to mark the occasion, which comes painted in a new ‘Dew Green’ colour, along with being fitted with seats made from a material derived from recycled plastic.
What’s under the bonnet?
Previously, the only thing older than the Panda itself was its 1.2-litre petrol engine, which Fiat had been using for decades.
But for this latest model, it comes with a new 1.0-litre petrol engine that’s joined with the aforementioned electrical gubbins. A six-speed manual gearbox is used, too, with power being delivered to the front wheels.
Even by city car standards, the Panda is impressively slow – 0-60mph taking 14.5 seconds. However, it can’t be faulted for its efficiency, with Fiat claiming it will return 50.4mpg, along with CO2 emissions of 126g/km. It’s the first test car that we’ve had in a long time that was more efficient than the manufacturer claimed, though – returning almost 55mpg in our mix of driving.
What’s it like to drive?
The Panda is quite clearly a city car, and it’s here where this little Fiat excels. With such dinky dimensions, great visibility and impressively light steering (more so if you press the ‘City’ mode), it is a phenomenal fit in an urban environment.
It’s here you can also test the bizarre ‘hybrid’ part to it, where – at speeds below 15mph – you can take it out of gear and the engine switches off. It’s an especially lazy way of doing things, given other similar systems do this automatically. The only other hybrid part you’ll notice is some light regenerative braking when you take your foot off the throttle, but really this is a hybrid you could drive without realising.
Storm Christoph proving no match for the little Panda in this week to try. The same can’t be said for hills, though pic.twitter.com/hHSmwcDw8a
— Ted Welford (@TedWelford) January 20, 2021
Elsewhere, though, the Panda is disappointing. It’s achingly slow to get up to speed, while both refinement and comfort are poor, even by budget car standards. The Volkswagen Up! is a much better option.
How does it look?
Fiat has a remarkable ability in making old cars still look new and fresh. Just look at the 500 (that design is 14 years old in 2021), so while the Panda shows its age in other areas, the design remains cool and different, though it certainly divides opinion.
Citycross models also look quite funky with their chunky plastic cladding and increased ride height, while ‘our’ Launch Edition in its distinctive green body colour also boosts the Panda’s appeal.
What’s it like inside?
Funky design also goes a long way to improving things when it comes to the Panda’s interior, with chunky switches, a body-coloured dashboard and textured plastics that spell ‘PANDA’ (if you look closely) all being cool touches. But the actual design is outdated and wouldn’t have looked out of place 10 years ago.
You’ve also got to smile at Fiat’s approach when it comes to infotainment, which is ‘no, you can’t have a touchscreen, but here’s a £5 clip you can plug your phone into instead’. It’s the same policy taken by Volkswagen in the Up!, mind you, so Fiat isn’t alone in these cost-cutting measures.
On a more positive note, the Panda is surprisingly roomy for such a small car. The 225-litre boot isn’t bad for something this dinky, while adults can fit in the rear in relative comfort.
What’s the spec like?
Expectations of small cars have improved dramatically in recent years. You only need to look at the Hyundai i10 city car for this, as even in mid-spec form it gets a whole range of driver assistance technology and even features like a reversing camera.
The Panda? Well, it just can’t compete and there’s none of the modern safety technology you get with rivals – little wonder the Panda was awarded a zero-star safety rating by Euro NCAP in 2018. You do get Bluetooth, automatic climate control and a leather steering wheel, but it can’t redeem the Panda’s fortunes.
It’s also not even that cheap any more, but does still undercut many rivals. The range kicks off from £12,000 (around £1,000 less than the base-specification Up!), while our high-spec Panda tipped the scales at just over £15,000. At that price, you’re nearing the cost of the GTI version of Volkswagen’s city car.
If you like the way the Panda looks, do all your driving in the city and want something impressively cheap to run, this Fiat is worth considering.
But the funky design and new hybrid option can’t deflect attention from the fact this city car is showing its age in a range of ways, from the interior to the way it drives. It might be likeable, just like that much-loved relative we mentioned at the start, but there’s a time and there’s a place. The Panda’s place is towards the bottom of this class.
Model: Fiat Panda
Base price: £12,025
Model as tested: Fiat Panda Citycross Launch Edition 1.0 Hybrid
Price as tested: £15,230
Engine: 1.0-litre petrol mild-hybrid
Max speed: 96mph
0-60mph: 14.5 seconds
Emissions: 126g/km CO2