First Drive: 2017 Fiat Panda

First Drive: 2017 Fiat Panda
 

At the end of the Fiat Tipo launch in mid-May, I had that sinking feeling many opposition MPs must surely get after yet another failure to pass a motion of no confidence.

Lots of talk, promises and speculation, but at the end of the day no cigar.

You see, the Tipo arrived with a number of accolades to its name — including the coveted European Autobest 2016 title — and the brand’s local marketing team talked up the car by saying it was “putting Fiat back in the mainstream”. I even seem to remember a claim that this car “will turn the segment on its head”.

Unfortunately, while some politicians and marketing people have a habit of stretching the truth, numbers don’t lie: according to the Naamsa figures for June/July 2017, Fiat sold exactly 33 Tipos.

In comparison, the Tipo’s direct competitors posted the following sales figures for the same period: the Toyota Corolla 1104; the Mazda3 470, and 480 for the Ford Focus.

To take on established players like Toyota, Mazda and Ford, you need to bring your A game — and Fiat simply hasn’t done that.

Even at the coast the 1.4-litre petrol engine had about as much spark as a dead battery, and the overall ride experience was as inspiring as staring into the inside of a paper bag.

Any positives? I guess you could say it has a good boot space of 440 litres.

Hopefully, though, Fiat is going to see a little more activity on the monthly Naamsa sales charts with the release last week of its refreshed Panda.

The range has been expanded to now include what Fiat terms the City Car — available in both Easy and Lounge 4×2 versions — along with the 4×4 and Cross models.

It’s worth noting that this is the only vehicle offering 4×4 capabilities in the A segment.

I must admit up front to having had a soft spot for the Panda ever since driving one back in 2013.

What endeared the vehicle to me were things like its cheeky personality, overall build quality and impressive fuel consumption. A healthy combination that made up a good, all-round package.

Thankfully, the latest Panda not only builds, but improves, on these vital elements.

While the Lounge model includes a number of new design elements (front fog lamps, roof rails and rear fog lights), it is the reintroduction of the Cross and 4×4 models after an absence of nearly a decade that makes the loudest statement for the brand.

The vehicle remains the same size, and although its dimensions on paper (3.65m long, 1.64m wide and 1.55m high) appear to be on the tiny side, interior space is surprisingly good.

I spent a brief period as a rear passenger and even with my giraffe-like legs managed to find a comfortable position with enough room.

While on the subject of space, the boot is — to use a favourite term of manufacturers — “best in class”. At 225 litres it really is surprisingly good, and load space expands to 870 litres with the rear seats folded flat.

The only engine on offer is a two-cylinder 875cc petrol powerplant.

Now before you start sniggering and drawing parallels with sewing machines and lawn mowers, this particular engine has been tried and tested, and is particularly sprightly.

Producing 63kW and 145Nm of torque — while taking into consideration the fact that the vehicle weighs just 975kg — the Panda more than holds its own, not only when driving about town, but also out on the open road.

The Easy and Lounge versions have a 5-speed manual transmission, while the Cross and 4×4 models have six gears.

The interiors across the range are pretty easy on the eye. Cloth seating is the only option, and it might take a day or two to familiarise yourself with the positioning of various dials and buttons.

During the launch last week in KwaZulu-Natal, we managed to squeeze in a spot of bundu-bashing at a 4×4 course just outside Hillcrest.

While both the Cross and 4×4 models score high in the looks department — thanks to front skid plate, door protection panels, alloy rims, pronounced wheel arches and new roof bars — it was off-road where the 4×4 version truly surprised.

A fairly deep water crossing coupled with rocky terrain were handled with ease as the permanent torque-on-demand drive system activated automatically when required.

For those more technically inclined, the 4×4 version has an approach angle of 21°, a departure angle of 36° and ground clearance of 150mm, while the engine intake duct sits 711mm from the ground.

Both the 4×4 model and Cross have belly protection in the form of steel shields, so mechanical parts are spared any scrapes or dings. It’s also good to report that across the range there is a comprehensive list of safety and convenience features.

On a more sobering note, and taking into account Chevrolet’s recent announcement about its impending exit from South Africa; the sluggish new car market and Fiat’s failure to dominate any particular segment for a long period, it was good to hear the company’s CEO, Robin van Rensburg, talk about the long history of Fiat and his assurance that it was “not going anywhere.”

I, for one, certainly hope that is true. – Bruce Fraser

2017 Fiat Panda Pricing:

Panda Easy: R184 900

Lounge: R199 900

4×4: R229 900

Cross: R249 900

All Fiat vehicles have a 3 year/100000km warranty and service plan.