Fiat has come out with some brave pricing for its third-generation Panda, launched in South Africa a couple of months ago.
Our journalistic senses were piqued by the R143 990 for the Panda 1.2 Pop version and R159 990 for the more up-spec 1.2 Lounge, making them a lot more expensive than any rivals in the small-car segment (we’ve listed some of them in the accompanying panel).
With the Panda’s normally-aspirated 1.2-litre engine at the bottom of the market segment with its 51kW and 102Nm outputs, on paper it just didn’t seem like a value-for-money buy.
But we were willing to give the little Italian hatch the benefit of the doubt. Once we road-tested it, we reckoned, perhaps the third-generation Panda would win us over with an array of class-beating standard equipment, or perhaps extra space or refinement.
After spending a week driving the Panda 1.2 Lounge I’m finding it difficult to fathom the reason for it costing 30 grand more than some of its competitors, however.
For starters, it’s no bigger than the opposition. With a length of 3.65m, a width of 1.64m and a height of 1.55m, the latest five-door Panda is larger than its predecessor, but its rear seat is quite cramped, even if the front occupants are feeling charitable about moving their own seats forward.
It doesn’t have a great driving position, and the lack of a reach-adjustable steering column (it has height-adjustment only) meant I was forced to drive with my knees scrunched against the fascia and my arms outstretched. A note to the motor industry: reach-adjustment should be standard in every car.
With its ability to swallow 225 litres of luggage (and 870 litres with the rear seats folded), the Panda has average-sized loading space for the class – neither the best nor the worst. Its rear seats can also be slid forward to expand boot space without having to fold down the backrests.
SLUGGISH BUT FRUGAL
The 1.2 engine is adequately peppy for city driving, but out on the open road the limitations of its power and torque outputs are clearly felt. It requires industrious revving, and frequent downshifting on uphills, to keep the Panda cruising at freeway speeds. It was a pleasant surprise therefore that, after our test car spent quite some time being mercilessly revved on the open road, it still averaged a decent 6.3 litres per 100km.
The Italian car doesn’t deliver any class-beating refinement, in fact it feels a little tinny. There’s enough wind and road noise to make you have to crank up the audio system’s volume as the car picks up speed.
Ride quality’s decent for a small car and the suspension copes reasonably well with uneven roads, though it lacks some torsional rigidity and a more solid feel would be welcome.
The Panda’s very easy to drive however, with a slick five-speed gearshift and super-light steering that makes it a delight to use in urban traffic. There’s a City Mode button which makes the steering even lighter, but it seems a fairly pointless feature unless you have spaghetti-thin arms.
It has a nippy nature and makes its way through busy traffic like an eager Jack Russell chasing a ball. The visibility’s great, with large windows and easy-to-see body extremities, which makes the Panda particularly easy to park. It has a funky-looking interior but the hard interior plastics don’t radiate as much upmarket feel as some competitors, particularly the new Clio which has a very grown-up feel.
Standard features in the Panda Lounge include electric mirrors and front windows, central locking, climate control, 15” alloy wheels, and leather-covered steering wheel. It also has a radio/CD with a Blue&Me hands-free Bluetooth system that includes voice recognition, USB port, MP3 player and SMS interpreter.
Safety-wise the car is on a par with most of its competitors and like all of them comes with ABS brakes, and it has four airbags where some rivals offer only two. The Fiat also comes with a three-year/100 000km warranty and maintenance plan (some competitors only offer a service or maintenance plan as an option) – but neither of these features are really enough to justify such a big price difference.
There’s a lot to like about the Fiat Panda Lounge, not least its funky Italian styling and easy-driving nature. But at R159 990 the car is simply too expensive in an exceptionally competitive and price-sensitive market segment.
I can’t see it whizzing out of showrooms when there are 1.2- and 1.4-litre rivals in SA’s small-car market that offer similar features and more power at far better pricetags. -Star Motoring
Fiat Panda 1.2 Lounge – 51kW/102Nm – R159 990
Kia Picanto 1.2 EX – 65kW/120Nm – R131 995
Hyundai i10 1.25 Glide - 64kW/119Nm – R137 900
Honda Brio 1.2 Comfort - 65kW/109Nm – R127 900
Ford Figo 1.4 Trend – 62kW/127Nm – R136 700
Chev Spark 1.2 LT – 60kW/108Nm – R139 300
Nissan Micra 1.2 Acenta – 56kW/104Nm – R138 100
Renault Clio 1.2 Authentique – R55kW/107Nm – R149 900
VW Polo Vivo 1.4 Trendline – 63kW/132Nm – R139 700