Capsule Review: Fiat Panda 1.2

Martin Schwoerer
by Martin Schwoerer
capsule review fiat panda 1 2

For the past 60 years or so, Fiat has had what amounted to a compulsive gambler’s business model: invest tons in one single car, cross fingers that it sells like hotcakes, and run the rest of the company with disinterest. This one-pony strategy has often delivered what, in the end, were the most desirable small cars of each decade. How else to describe the 1950’s 1100, the 1960’s 124, the 128 from the 70s or the Uno from the 80s? All, as well as the Punto from the 1990s and the Panda from the present decade, adhered to a simple but elusive formula: cheap to buy, brilliantly packaged, surprisingly robust, and a hoot to drive. (Most other Fiats, let’s not fail to mention, have been crap).

Around two million Pandas have been built since 2003. But it is still the minicar I most like to drive. You can get one for eight thousand Euros, which is around one third of the average price of a new car, yet it will seat four in acceptable comfort. The other day I spent a few hours driving a 1.2L model with just 60 horses. The engine is a gem: quiet at any speed, gutsy from 1200 RPM onwards, free-spinning to 6,000 RPM. The way it responds to gas-pedal pokes is faintly reminiscent of a carbureted engine.

Sure, it’s no sports car, but it felt lively and capable in any situation, and anybody who would claim it’s too slow for safety just doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift properly.

The standard, fun on-board computer seldom registered less than 39 MPG. The dashboard, as I observed in my 4X4 review, is an exemplary contemporary industrial design, meaning it does what it should do better than most, and still looks pretty. Also standard: a superassist button to make urban steering extra light. It may sound like a silly thing to have, but let me ask you this: with what other car, except for a Lancer Evo, can you induce and hold a four-wheel drift with your index finger?

From the Panda came two cubs: the Fiat 500 and the Ford Ka. Both are cuter, both are pricier, and neither are better. Due to nonsensical safety standards, I fear that America will never get the Panda, Chrysler hookup notwithstanding. That’s a pity.

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2 of 16 comments
  • Davey49 Davey49 on Apr 30, 2009

    The Bravo is the Fiat I would be interested in, the Linea as well. The 500 and Panda are gimmick cars that people on blog sites like talking about but will never sell to Americans. Alfa 159 would be my ideal Fiat Group car sold in the US

  • on May 01, 2009

    @shaker: You misunderstand. It's not that the Panda don't conform to any safety standards or are unsafe 3rd-world crackerbox deathmobiles. It's that they conform to the international ECE standards (used throughout the industrialized world) rather than the U.S. standards. The U.S. standards are not better, they're just different. See this editorial. Motorways in continental Europe, Australia, the U.K. and many other places carry a vehicle mix including big trucks — some bigger than those you find on U.S. interstates — and cars like the Panda, often at higher speeds and with better safety than we have in the U.S.

  • Wjtinfwb I've seen worse on the highways around Atlanta, usually with a refrigerator or washer wedged into the trunk and secured with recycled twine...
  • Wjtinfwb Surprising EB Flex hasn't weighed in yet on it being the subject of a recall...
  • Gabe Awesome. Owners can cook their DNA with EMFs while watching YouTube now.
  • Cardave5150 Why oh why are they resurrecting the ZDX name??? It’s not like the last one was anything other than an overpriced freak show. Just use 3 other random letters!
  • Gemcitytm Why does it seem every EV seems to have ridiculous amounts of power? Yes, I know they're heavier than ICE models but who on earth needs 708 HP? How about a nice, compact EV with, say, 250 HP and 350-400 mile range? Is that impossible with today's tech? (I currently drive a 148 HP Mazda 3 ICE and it has all the get-up-and-go I need.)