This baby is one for city lights
With forecasts of more lean times ahead, low-priced, high-specification compact models will be in increasing demand, says Martin Brennan
The city car has been around in one shape or another for some time but with urban growth and downsizing, for financial and practical traffic reasons, there is a new focus on the 'small is beautiful' concept.
Fiat claims that the city car concept was "invented" in Italy when a rash of baby Fiat 500cc models, in two and four-seat configuration with little more than four wheels and an engine, that hit the road as Europe recovered after the Second World War.
The 'Bambino' car idea grew as bigger models with bigger engines followed and in 1980 the first Panda appeared in blobby black and white paintwork to give it a friendly cuddly appeal. But underneath it was a sturdy little workhorse that was relaunched 2003, won European Car of the Year in 2004, and has since notched up 6.5m sales. Now the third generation model is set to arrive in February/March next year with improved performance and space.
The new Panda comes at a time when the VW group will be launching the up! and similar models under the Skoda and Seat brand names, Toyota, Peugeot and Citroen roll out their Aygo, 106 and C1 models and Ford continues the Ka line. It is entering an increasingly congested segment of the market where sales are traditionally low but with forecasts of more hard times ahead there may well be more demand for low-priced high-specification compact models.
Fiat's marketing communications manager, Conor Twomey, feels that the new Panda is well up to the challenge and will enter the fray with a starting price in the region of €11,700. It is now 114mm longer, 11mm taller and 65mm wider which means more interior space and improved safety. There are big improvements in the dash layout and materials used, seating allows more legroom and there is even a space saving handbrake. "Passengers will find that the finish and built quality and materials used are a big improvement which make for a quieter and more comfortable drive."
The exterior design takes a softer approach. Gone are sharper lines of the current model and the smoother edges give a sturdier more substantial appearance. The high seating levels make for easy entry/exit which will suit more elderly occupants. The new surface lines also make for less wind noise.
Improvements in the driving dynamics are achieved by the use of more lightweight and high strength steel, a new anti-roll bar, stiffer suspensions which cuts body roll by 35 per cent and under-steer by 20 per cent. A 4x4 system will be available in the autumn. There are three levels of trim on offer, Pop, Easy and Lounge with the entry level getting four airbags, anti-whiplash headrests, ABS, and Brake Assist. ESP stability control will be standard in all models from September. Also available is climate control, parking sensors, electric sunroof and Dualogic automated manual transmission. A low-speed collision mitigation braking system will be available later next year.
A special dashboard dock is available for Blue&Me technology, TomTom2 satnav systems with integrated voice or touchscreen controlled MP3/iPod and mobile phone control which is available at Fiat dealerships. It includes a Google search function to give precise location of a business or point-of interest location even if the user does not have the address.
Under the bonnet there is a choice of four engines. The tried and trusted 1.2 FIRE 69 bhp petrol engine will be the big seller here with the option of a 65 bhp or 75 bhp Multi-air engines which produced under 100g/km of CO2 with low fuel consumption. A 1.3 litre multi-jet 75 bhp engine is also available with 104g/km of CO2 output and a fuel consumption of less than 4L/100km.
The 2-cylinder Twinair engines give a lively performance once the revs are kept up with some lively gear changing. The diesel offering is perfect for the Panda and is smooth and quiet in operation. Full test report to follow.