The new Panda is about to go on sale in the UK a few months after being named European Car of the Year, and will be followed in March by the new Idea – a Punto-based mini-MPV.
The Panda is a replacement for the Seicento, which, by last year, was struggling to compete with fresher-faced city cars, many offering five doors and some with a diesel option.
Fiat had planned to call the Seicento replacement the Gingo, but reverted to a well-recognised name from the past.
New Pandas haven't been on sale in the UK since 1995, but far from harking back to the past the new model aims to move the city car sector forward.
Priced from £6,295 on-the-road, the Panda also offers insurance from group one and Fiat expects residual values to be among the best in class. This would put it on a similar level with the likes of the Vauxhall Agila at 38% after three years/ 60,000 miles for the best performing model and 36% for the Daihatsu Charade.
Although the city car sector is not a high-volume segment for the corporate market, Fiat fleet marketing manager Tony Dittli believes there are opportunities for the new Panda.
He said: 'We recognise this is predominantly a retail sector of the market but we believe there are openings in the public sector, such as with district nurses or smaller businesses, like estate agents, and others looking to downsize from a car like the Punto.
'If we target these opportunities there is no reason why the Panda shouldn't succeed as it is an area we have done well with in the past.'
Only a few manufacturers in the city car sector, such as Volkswagen and SEAT, offer diesel variants as the running costs advantage of operating a small diesel car is much less, taking into account no pump-price advantage in the UK.
However, with its Euro IV- compliant Multijet common rail diesel, Dittli believes it is important that Fiat is represented and will introduce the 70bhp 1.3 Multijet this summer to complement the 54bhp 1.1-litre and 60bhp 1.2-litre petrol engines, while a four-wheel drive Panda – set to become the UK's cheapest 4x4 – will go on sale towards the end of the year. An automated manual transmission is offered as an option on 1.2-litre models.
European orders for the Panda are already strong and Fiat hopes to sell up to 1,000 to fleets in the UK this year out of a total of about 10,000 units, with increased sales in 2005 – the first full year of the whole range.
The entry-level 1.1 Active has electric front windows, central locking, Dualdrive electronic power steering, two airbags and a Blaupunkt radio/cassette.
Features on higher specification models include up to six airbags, automatic climate control, parking sensors, a SkyDome electric sunroof, steering wheel audio controls and a CD with MP3 player – many of these unheard of in this class.
Anti-lock brakes and a trip computer are also fitted to all but the 1.1 Active, while Fiat's Connect electronic directory system is also available as an option on most of the range.
A £200 sliding rear seat increases the 206-litre luggage compartment to 236 litres, and the Panda's flexibility, high driving position and unconventional styling makes it feel like a scaled-down Multipla.
Dittli added: 'Company car policies are continually evolving and we will soon have a full range of versatile and flexible vehicles to supplement our traditional offerings, with cars like the Panda, Idea, Doblo, Multipla, Stilo Multi Wagon and Ulysse.'
Behind the wheel
DESIGNED more in the mould of a tall mini-MPV like the Vauxhall Agila than the three-door Seicento it replaces, the Panda is a friendly-looking concoction of mixed styling cues.
The front three-quarters of the Panda have the appearance of a tall, narrow mini car but as the glass begins to curve downwards in the rear doors, there is suddenly a square bit seemingly grafted on, a bit like an 8/10 scale Volvo V70 tailgate, with its full length rear light clusters.
Although it might look a little incongruous at first glance, it seems to work and gives the Panda a character lacking in too many of its rivals.
The interior has also been influenced by modern MPVs with the gear lever set conveniently in the dashboard and an elevated seating position giving a good view of the road ahead.
Headroom is superb – even in the rear – and while knee room in the rear would be compromised by taller drivers in the front, there is plenty of space for people close to six-foot tall in the front and rear at the same time.
Although the dashboard materials are mainly hard plastics, and the finish isn't quite as good as you might see in larger cars, it doesn't look out of place in this sector and feels quite robust.
Despite offering just 54bhp, the 1.1 Active feels livelier than its 15-second 0-62mph time suggests, and while the steering is rather vague across the range, the gearchange is light and precise.
The Panda is both tall and narrow, so it pays to ensure corners are taken at safe speeds as the body is prone to lurching into tighter bends and grip soon runs out at the front.
However, the ride is comfortable for a car of its compact dimensions and there is a true sense of fun about being behind the wheel.
The 1.2-litre currently offered across the rest of the range (Dynamic and Eleganza models) is smoother than the 1.1-litre and is noticeably more sprightly with an extra 10lb-ft of torque coming in 250rpm lower down the rev range.
Both variants are happy to sit on the motorway at a steady 70mph, with limited wind noise and a calm engine note.
AFTER a difficult few years, Fiat has proved it hasn't lost its knack of building affordable and enjoyable small cars. The Panda's extra interior flexibility over many city cars will be an added bonus.
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||54/5,000||60/5,000||70/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||65/2,750||75/2,500||107/1,500|
|Max speed (mph):||93||96||99|
|Fuel economy (mpg comb):||49.6||50.4||65.7|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||135||133||114|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||35/7.7|
|Transmission:||5-sp man||Service interval (miles):||12,000||On sale:||Now||Prices (OTR):||£6,295-£8,095|