The three cars in this test are all designed to excel in the city, but they couldn’t be more different. While the Smart is unique and the i is Mitsubishi’s take on the very specialist Japanese micro car, the Panda is a more traditional European offering that delivers practicality, yet has a sense of fun.
And if there’s one firm that can claim to be the king of the populist small car, it’s Fiat – models such as the 500 and original Panda were hugely successful. The latest Panda is no different. With its boxy but charming and classless looks, it has picked up a host of awards, including Supreme Champion at our 2004 New Car Honours.
Wider than both its rivals, it’s actually shorter than the i, but with bigger overhangs front and rear its footprint on the road is far more conventional. However, it’s still small enough to be as usable in town – in fact, excellent all-round visibility and a tight turning circle mean it never feels less suited to urban life than its competitors.
The driving position is good, and the Panda is the only car to have rake adjustment on the steering wheel. Fiat does charge £80 for a height-adjustable driver’s seat, however! All of the controls are laid out in a simple and straightforward manner, while the dash-mounted gearlever is perfectly placed. The interior plastics look and feel cheap compared to the other cars in this test, but the build quality – while not up to Smart standards – is fine. There’s a certain utilitarian charm about the workmanlike cabin.
It’s the 1.3-litre Multijet diesel engine that really makes the Panda so appealing. Peak torque arrives at 1,500rpm, so unlike its small capacity petrol rivals in this test, it doesn’t need to be worked hard to deliver power. Acceleration in-gear is therefore smoother and more immediate, and once you add in the 52.2mpg economy of this small oil-burner – it’s the most frugal car Auto Express has ever tested – the Panda is certainly at its best with the Multijet under the bonnet.
And while it did record higher noise figures at idle and low speed, once cruising, the motor is the least intrusive. More importantly, the
character of the engine makes nipping in and out of city traffic simple, especially as the manual gearbox has a light and easy action.
In fact, with the City button pressed – which makes the already light steering even easier to twirl – and a manual gearbox, the Panda is by far the easiest of this trio to squeeze into tight parking spots. It copes quite well out of town, too, being the most stable on motorways, while a soft suspension set-up means that the Fiat rides very smoothly.
The damping soaks up imperfections well and it remains much more composed than the Smart. The flipside is that in corners there’s plenty of body roll. However, the steering is precise, and the nose loses grip progressively, so on the whole it is more reassuring and competent than either of its rivals.
There’s lots of dive under braking, though, and it took 2.4 metres longer than the Smart to stop from 70mph. And unlike the little two-seater, stability control isn’t standard, although Fiat does at least offer it as a £420 option. The Panda lacks air-con and alloy wheels from its kit list, too, but the £8,195 price tag is cheaper. So can its blend of practicality and usability keep it at the top of the class?
Model tested: Fiat Panda 1.3 Multijet
Chart position: 1
WHY: Easy to drive, roomy and, in diesel trim, very frugal, the Panda is our current class favourite.
Neither the Smart nor the Mitsubishi came close to Fiat’s Multijet Panda, though. With an average of 52.2mpg, it’s the most efficient car Auto Express has ever tested, and a great choice for buyers wanting low fuel bills.
The Panda Multijet is predicted to retain a disappointing 36.7 per cent of its new price. That means a used value in three years’ time of only £3,007 – which simply doesn’t compare to the new Smart’s impressive £3,928.
Fiat has 170 garages in the UK – the most here – but size isn’t everything. The firm was voted 31st out of 32 in Auto Express’s Driver Power 2007 dealer survey. Services are due every 12,000 miles in the Panda, and the first three check-ups come to £489.
The Panda emits 114g/km – the same as the Mitsubishi – while its diesel engine is compatible with the current Euro IV emissions regulations. Its eco credentials are further boosted by a high level of recyclability.