Is the new Fiat Panda destined for India? Officially, there are no plans to make or sell it outside Europe but it looks entirely suitable for our market and an ideal successor to the now-discontinued Palio. Examine the size and specification: a tall, five-door, five-seater 365cm long, it is about the same size as the Maruti Ritz. There is a choice of four engines, including the 1.3-litre Multijet diesel that is already made in India. And future variants include rugged, high ground clearance models, with and without four-wheel drive.
Most important of all, the Panda is designed to be among the cheapest new cars in Europe. Its platform also forms the basis of the Fiat 500 - in Europe as in India, a premium model - and will be used for a smaller, more basic city car that will form the future entry model for the European range.
In Europe, the Panda fits beneath the Punto Evo, a more substantial, 4-metre car with a wider range of engines, emphasising the 1.4-litre petrol engine. It would need to have the same position in India viz-a-viz the Grande Punto and such a selling price could only be achieved with local production â" and we understand that decision has not yet been taken.
The new Panda, launched in Europe in March 2012 is the third generation. The first, like the animal it was named after, was a simple soul. It was a back-to-basics small car introduced in 1980, designed and engineered in Giorgetto Giugiaro's nascent ItalDesign studio. It was a box with simple body pressings and flat glass and removable and washable hammock-type seats. The cheapest version had a 652cc twin-cylinder engine developing 30PS.The latest Fiat Panda remains a versatile car in the smallest A class, tailored to the legislation and customer demands of the second decade of the 21st century. It seeks to be more than a workhorse; it is an inexpensive five-door hatchback trying hard to have some urban chic. It also features a twin-cylinder engine, 875cc and turbocharged to produce 85PS.
So the Panda has grown after 32 years and more than six million sales. There was another model in between which was supposed to be called Gingo but became the New Panda when Renault complained that Gingo was too close to Twingo in the automotive lexicon. That second Panda was elected Car of the Year 2004 but four years later it was to spawn a baby brother, the 500, which was to prove even more popular (and also win Car of the Year) and establish a new line of small Fiats that could be sold at a premium and would have worldwide appeal.
The 2012 Panda is an evolution of the second generation car, incorporating the technical improvements made for the 500 and, in particular, the 1.4-litre 500 adapted for the US market. The Lancia Ypsilon (sold as a Chrysler in the UK) is built on the same platform. But whereas the 500 and Ypsilon (and Ford Ka) are made at the Fiat plant at Tychy in Poland, Panda production has been transferred to Pomigliano d'Arco in the south of Italy following Fiat's new deal with its Italian workforce.
The Panda seems destined to remain in the shadow of the more stylish 500 which seems a bit unfair, given that it is more practical, more spacious and better-riding. But it faces more serious competition than before: the Hyundai i10, Kia Picanto and the Volkswagen Up! are all enjoying healthy sales in Europe â" and have entry prices at least 10 per cent lower than the Panda.
So what makes this new Panda different â" and better â" than the old New Panda? It looks quite similar, although it is more rounded and the front is heavily revised, and it is bigger â" 115mm longer, 38mm wider and 10mm taller. The wheelbase is unchanged. Torsional stiffness has been improved, partly by the judicious use of hot-stamped high-strength steel (Fiat claims a lead over its rivals with these materials) and also by employing the stiffer front sub-frame from the US 500. This allows softer springs to be fitted, which along with larger rear suspension bushes, improves ride comfort without upsetting the car's handling.
The main novelty is the TwinAir engine (which has been available in the 500 for some time). This jewel of a power unit accommodates two vertical cylinders, Fiat's MultiAir electro-hydraulic inlet valve actuation and a turbocharger in a tiny package and claims to achieve the best fuel consumption and lowest CO2 of any production petrol engine.
Because of EU legislation mandating low average CO2 for a manufacturer's range, all the major car makers have a sub 1-litre engine available or in preparation. Most are three-cylinder units; Fiat's, the lightest and smallest, is the only twin. The combined figure for the European fuel consumption test comes out at 23.81kmpl with a CO2 output at 99 g/km. I don't doubt that this is achievable in the conditions of the rolling-road test, which requires only modest acceleration and has no hard-driving but I would be surprised if any Panda buyer motoring in the real world will get even close to the official figure.
The TwinAir has an unusual torque curve â" and is notably short of grunt at low revs â" which means that one inevitably revs it harder than you would a smoother, more progressive engine. This has meant a difficult compromise in the spacing of the five gears. Add to that vibration at low speeds and rather horrid noise throughout and the TwinAir emerges as a disappointing, even if it is capable of propelling the Panda to a respectable 177kmph and from 0-100kmph in 11.2 seconds.
The four-cylinder 1.2-litre engine, which is related to the long-established FIRE unit, is nicer to drive but, with only 69PS, quite a bit slower (0-100: 14.2s) and less economical (19.23kmpl). The 1.3-litre Multijet diesel, introduced with the New Panda in 2004, delivers a similar fuel figure to the TwinAir and is priced at roughly the same level (in some countries taxation and fuel prices make diesel preferable). TwinAir and diesel engines come with Fiat's stop-start system, which is infuriatingly slow and fussy in operation.
Generally, though, the Panda is comfortable and pleasing to drive and, the twin's engine noise aside, quieter and more refined than its predecessor. It has the feel of a bigger and more expensive car, at least from the front seats; the high roof ought to allow a more upright driving position and correspondingly more legroom at the rear but because the steering wheel adjusts only for rake, not distance, it doesn't. The optional sliding rear seat helps create more rear seat space.
It may be trying too hard to be young and fashionable. There is a wide choice of bright colours which is okay for the outside but the pastel shades that frame the dashboard only emphasize the facia's hard plastic mouldings and the light-coloured seat fabrics look as if they will stain easily. Indian customers though have shown a strong preference for lighter shades as it gives a sense of spaciousness, a trick that Hyundai have pulled off very well with the i10. And that's the segment Fiat needs to crack if there are to be any hopes of (yet another) revival in India.