Terrific Little Car With Surprising Quality
But European Car Of The Year? Jury System Ripe For Review
Rating - **** out of 5
Forgive me for being cynical, but I had assumed that Fiats award of European Car of the Year for its little Panda was a stitch up.
After all, how could a little city car with derivative technology, made by a company that was on the brink of financial ruin, and which had earned a reputation over the years for unreliability and dodgy workmanship, beat out the proven quality and innovation of cars like the Mazda3, VW Golf, Toyota Avensis, Opel/Vauxhall Meriva, BMW 5 series, and the Nissan Micra, its rivals for the 2004 crown?
Also, the fact that the Fiat groups 11 wins of this prize since 1964 - Fiats 124, 127, 128, Lancia Delta, Fiats Uno, Tipo, Punto, Bravo/Brava, and Alfa 156 and 147, and now the Panda - suggested to me that there was something suspicious about the European Car of the Year voting system.
Rovers, Simcas And Austins Won This!
European journalists, 58 from 22 European countries, had seen fit over the years to award Fiat the most first prizes, ahead of Renault (5), Ford (4), Citroen (3) and Peugeot (3). This showed a blatant disregard for what car buyers covet most - reliability and honesty. The consumers friend and purveyors of rock-solid reliability, the Japanese car manufacturers, had only won twice (Nissan and Toyota). Mercedes, once the undisputed quality king, had one win. BMW, the best conserver of second hand value according to a recent survey in Britain and maker of superb cars, had won no first prizes at all. These people have awarded the prize to Rovers, Simcas, and Austins!
Clearly, there is something questionable about the methods, the brains, or the honesty of the European Car of the Year jury. I couldnt wait to drive the Fiat Panda, and then rubbish it for the charlatan it surely must be.
As youve already guessed, that didnt happen.
Fabulous Little Car
The Fiat Panda is a fabulous little car.
Its certainly not pretty. The bulbous roof puts an end to any thoughts of beauty. But that is the essence of this little city car everything about it is practical. The roof bulges a bit to make sure there is plenty of headroom. There is plenty of room for 4 adults, although the boot space is a bit limited as youd expect. This car is less than 12 feet long (3,538 mm) long, after all.
The most surprising first impression I had of the Panda was its apparent bombproof build quality, and the quality nature of its plastics, switches and fittings. The doors close with a satisfying clunk. The dashboard is elegant and easy to fathom. The gear lever is set in the lower centre of the dashboard a la Honda Civic , which frees up space. Believe it or not, there is plenty of room for the drivers left foot and all the pedals. My recent test drive of a Punto had pointed to the perennial problem of overly tight space for the drivers feet in small Fiats. This has finally been solved. Halleluiah!
No ABS On Entry Model
The new Panda offers levels of equipment usually associated with more expensive cars. Electric front windows, central locking, electronic power steering, two front airbags and Blaupunkt stereo radio cassette are standard even on the entry level Active version, although this one doesnt have ABS brakes.
You can buy six airbags, automatic climate control, parking sensors, and an electric sunroof.
Through the range you can specify ABS with electronic brake-force distribution, cornering and stability gizmos, and a hillholder function to make hill starts easy.
Multijet Diesel Coming Soon
There will be six versions of the Panda, priced from £6,295 (9,100 euros), with three trim levels Active, Dynamic and Eleganza a 1.1 litre 54 bhp and 1.2 litre 60 bhp petrol engines, with 5 speed gearboxes. The 1.2 engine can also be mated to an automatic gearbox. The superb 1.3 litre Multijet diesel is becoming available across Europe and will reach Britain this summer. A 4x4 off-road version will also be available this summer.
On the road the Panda, even with the least powerful engine, feels lively. The steering is excellent. The car will cruise at 80 mph (130 kph) quietly and confidently. The gear change is crisp and accurate.
But Will It Last?
Many of these plus points beg the question about reliability and longevity. Maybe these were just press cars, prepared to impress us, with standards reverting to type when production gears up for the mass market. I think that is an overly suspicious thought and I hereby put it behind me.
The competition in this sector is tough, with the likes of the Ford Ka (£6,650 also exABS), Vauxhall Agila (£5,995 sans ABS), and the Daewoo Matiz (£6,595 exABS).
Im still not convinced that the Panda is a suitable European Car of the Year. It breaks no new ground in terms of technology. The upmarket BMW 5 series after all introduced computerised steering, adaptive headlights which follow corners, and a head-up display as in fighter jets.
Utility Is King
But the Panda certainly gives the impression that it will be terrific value in the lowest segment of the market where utility is king. As late as the Frankfurt Car Show last September, we all thought that the Panda would in fact be called the Gingo. A lawsuit from Renault, saying the name was too much like the Twingo, and the Gingo became the Panda.
I couldnt wait to start calling this the Gringo as soon as negative reports about its poor quality started to spread. It looks like this sophisticated and refined little car would have thwarted me anyway.
Neil Winton January 25, 2004
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