Little Monster

Contributor, Chris Elvin returns to our pages to establish whether his Panda really eats shoots and leaves. 

(c) motoringbox

In the Spring of 2018, Driven to Write published the article ‘Small Is Beautiful… and Why Modern Cars Are (usually) Better’ describing my experience running a Rover 75 and its eventual replacement by a Fiat Panda TwinAir Turbo. A number of readers were kind enough to comment that they would like to read more about my experiences with the Panda so, now that I have been running it daily for over a year, I thought I would contribute a sort of long-term test report.

I should begin by explaining that my Panda isn’t quite the same as the TwinAir Turbo model that you will find in most Fiat showrooms the world over, owing to an odd tax-break in the Netherlands and an intervention that I will describe presently.

In most markets, the turbocharged TwinAir motor fitted to the Panda (and 500) produces 85 horsepower. However, for the Dutch market, Fiat supplies a slightly de-tuned version of the engine, which produces only 80 horses but is able to meet the Euro 6 emissions norm and thus qualifies for a (much) lower tax band when used as a company car.

Unsurprisingly, this artificial limiting of the engine is not an improvement and those who have compared the two versions report that the 85 horsepower variant is smoother and more tractable, as well as more powerful. Nonetheless, even the slightly strangled variant of the TwinAir Turbo demonstrates an alacrity that is unexpected in a city runabout and I enjoyed the car in its standard guise for several months. 

Living in the centre of a city with cramped 17th century streets and coming from a big car like the Rover, the Panda’s compact dimensions and excellent visibility (now sadly a rarity in this world of rising window-lines) were a breath of fresh air and make finding a parking space massively less taxing, without recourse to beeping parking sensors.

This pleasant practicality extends to the Panda’s interior and boot: I was able to transport three other adults and their luggage to and from the airport without any significant problems (though the increase in the car’s weight when fully occupied was noticeable). The ergonomics of the dashboard are commendable too; I often find myself wondering why other cars don’t have their gear levers situated high up, near to the steering wheel, like the Panda.

(c) carmagazine

Other major controls are similarly well situated and the interior has plenty of storage space for oddments (and a great many cup-holders), though sadly Fiat have omitted an interior light for the glovebox. Though essentially an affectation, I do like the unconventionally-shaped handbrake lever that functions simultaneously as a ‘hand rest’. 

My Panda came with a ‘luxury’ options pack fitted, the main constituent part of which is an upgraded, good sounding, 6-speaker stereo and Fiat’s new ‘Uconnect’ smartphone integration system, complete with a removable ‘dock’ atop the dashboard. This has proven to be a genuine surprise: I had assumed the smartphone integration would be pointless but in fact it works well. I find myself using navigation over the car’s speakers, streaming music and even occasionally using the car phone (which has excellent sound quality and can be controlled using buttons on the steering wheel). 

Enough of the interior, let’s get back to that engine: In my previous article I chose the words ‘bonkers’ and ‘growly’ to describe the turbocharged TwinAir engine and these still strike me as entirely appropriate. A motoring journalist (alas, I forget which one) described the TwinAir Turbo as ‘the twin cylinder engine Maserati would make’ and, though hyperbolic, this really is an apt description.

The character of the engine dominates that of the car and gives the cuddly little Panda bite (as well as an appealing growl). Whether or not this is a good thing depends on your point of view. If I was advising someone uninterested in cars or driving on which small car they should buy, I would certainly recommend the Panda (along with the Up/Mii/CitiGo triplets) but I would advise choosing the old 4 cylinder FIRE engine.

In truth, the TwinAir is a flawed engine: It’s real-world economy is good but not exceptionally so, it’s not very tractable, is quite noisy and produces a lot of vibration, which, at 1500rpm in second gear, sets up a deeply unpleasant resonant vibration in the car’s body shell. You can drive around this of course but this requires a degree of attention that sensible people would not wish to lavish on a means of utilitarian transport. 

The TwinAir Turbo makes up for these flaws by being brilliant in other ways: It’s powerful for its size, has terrific in-gear response and that noise is absolutely wonderful when you push it… but these are virtues only a car enthusiast would really appreciate. This is basically a very sporting engine and the TwinAir is the first car I’ve driven for years that actually needs you to drive it properly; the engine revs fall slowly so gear and clutch matching need to be done carefully, you need to drive around the aforementioned vibration and it simply refuses to pootle along in a high gear. In fact, for a city car, it’s pretty awful at driving in traffic. Needless to say, I love it.

Autoevolution

I love the car all the more since having the aforementioned de-tuning fixed. Though Fiat in the Netherlands sells a slightly throttled engine to its customers, the Dutch Fiat importer makes up for this by owning not only the largest Fiat dealer network in the country, but also a company called Savali Racing, whose services are made available via said dealer network.

Savali used to be a successful Alfa Romeo racing outfit but nowadays provides subtle tuning to Fiat group products and is happy to fix a neutered TwinAir Turbo. A visit to their premises earlier this year resulted in a Panda with sharper throttle response, a smoother-idling, more tractable engine and an almost 30% increase in power and torque.

The result is dramatic, yet feels entirely natural. A Dutch motoring journal that tested the 102 horsepower tuned engine remarked that it should be the standard configuration and I couldn’t agree more: This is exactly how the TwinAir Turbo should be and, remarkably, it suits the Panda down to the ground.

What was a pleasantly sprightly little car is now downright sporting and it feels like it was always meant to be this way; the character of the whole car simply gels. That cowled, sporty, instrument binnacle (that gives rev counter and speedometer equal billing) with its red numbering, the chunky steering wheel and the car’s generally alert ride and handling (that is in no way overwhelmed by the increase in power); it all just fits together.

(c) carscoops

 Of course, none of this really obviates the aforementioned points of criticism of the TwinAir as a city car. A VW Up (or indeed a 4 cylinder Panda) is a better car for most people; easier to drive, better in traffic, quieter and more mechanically refined. So if the turbocharged TwinAir Panda isn’t really a city car, what is it? What is it good for?

Well, it’s a car for holding in gear just to hear the engine growl, for seeing the words ‘Short On-Ramp’ on a sign and being unable to suppress a grin, for enjoying accelerating out of a curve onto a clear open road. It’s an enthusiast’s car disguised as a cute little city car (with many of the accompanying practical advantages). In short, it’s absolutely brilliant.

17 thoughts on “Little Monster”

  1. Hi Chris, a great write-up on a brilliant car, thank you. I have great affection for the Panda. It’s a lovely piece of design that, like its predecessors, avoided any of the tropes that were in vogue when it was launched, so it has not dated at all and remains as “fashionable” today as it was in 2011. Its boxy shape and large glass area are perfect for its intended purpose and the “squircle” motif is cleverly and consistently employed on everything from the wheel arches to the instrument panel. It may not match the UP! for “perceived” quality, but who cares when it’s so cheerful and smiley?

    The twin-air engine was, allegedly, designed to produce flattering MPG (and CO2?) results in official tests that were impossible to achieve in real-world driving. However, your experience, particularly after the upgrade, suggests that it has found its niche as a peppy and fun performer in the great Italian tradition. In any event, the four-cylinder alternative is available for owners who are happy to trade character for refinement and ease of use.

    It’s ironic and tragic that FIAT has covered the small car sector so effectively with the Panda and 500, two cars that are the polar opposite of each other in design terms, and yet fails to produce anything larger that is remotely as convincing or appealing.

    1. Thank you for the kind commentary. You are right about Fiat, they are perplexing… though the biggest tragedy must surely be the mismanagement of their Italian brand portfolio as a whole.

  2. Your article was genuinely enjoyable.

    The actual Panda is doubtless a car full of verve, and probably the only current Fiat offering (agree, tragically so…) that captures the essential Italian flair of micro-motoring, that actually made Fiat what it is today.

    Personally, I have been somewhat dissuaded by the current-gen Panda’s dimensions & footprint, which I find just the slightiest tad oversized for the iconic, “Euro-Kei” Panda brand it wears.

    The possibility of having a chipped Twin-Air (~100 Bhp!), though, never occured to me, I admit! Actually, it was this very aspect in your very interesting article, that immediately triggered a keen driver’s itch that had been lingering in my brain’s (correction: soul’s) hidden folder named ‘Panda 100 HP’:
    it goes almost without saying that, with 100 bhp on tap, this should come seriously close to the get-up!-and-citi-go of the legendary 100 HP, with that admittedly exotic character of a rorty turbo-twin,
    apparently turning each commuting into pure left-foot adult entertainment (Btw., the article was enough to make me search
    “lightly used” Twinairs on sites like mobile.de et al.).

    The only thing preventing me from taking the leap and buying one is, probably, the inevitable ensuing comparison with the legendary Mk1 Panda that I once owned (in its latest, 2003-model year incarnation with a sublimely overpowered-for-it 1.108 FIRE 54 cv engine).
    Sadly, from a plethora of cars I have driven/tested/owned, it easily makes the top-five, measured as a caliber of the hole it left in my driver’s soul after I stupidly sold it.

    I am just seriously worried that every drive in a Mk2 (or Mk3) Panda could trigger this unwanted nostalgia for the original (yes, the Mk1 is indeed like a pair of your favourite jeans, boots, T-shirt and bomber jacket – gelled in one. All these years I tried, and couldn’t find a more suitable comparison for what did it feel like… The fact that mine was a 1.1, 54cv, and *very* fast for what it was, did not “help” in facilitating me forgetting it). Moreover, I feel it left another big & specific “scar”
    in my automotive tastes: ever since it departed, my taste in cars (daily ones, mind!) turned severely spartan, making me appreciate Dacias, Škodas, Up!miigos and generally base(ish) models much more noticably, on a wholly irrational level.
    The Panda Mk1 biggest virtue, in retrospect, must be exactly this: making you desire levels of simplicity that the rational describes as punishing. This power of conversion carries hints of a deeply spiritual, isichastic mood that perhaps inhabited Giugiaro’s persona when he started conceiving it.

    Alas, today I accidentally discovered (while watching a trailer for a new digital-blockbuster movie with my 9-yr son), that within the window of the next 5-10 years time, we might witness a resurrection of such an achingly simple (not necessarily simplistic!) car, in the form of a possible future revamping of the Yugo brand. Yes, you read that correctly. In one of the scenes, there’s a split-second lasting image of a big neon ad saying “Wherever Yugo…”, followed by the “Y” logo and a picture of a red 3dr. hatch, looking very akin to the original Uno Mk1).

    Here is the screenshot I made:
    https://www.flickr.com/gp/167209543@N04/66Bs1m

    Now, if you consider the lengths the digital movie industry goes to so as to ensure proper “target grouping” of its advertising capacity (hidden in short, split-second-effect bursts of hidden logos, colours etc… aimed at “future consumers generations”), I wouldn’t be surprised if such a Y-brand comeback could actually happen (roughly in the period when today’s 10-11-12 yr.olds turn legal age to receive their first, “3,999-priced” car…). Any takers?

    No matter how bizarre it might seem, it would be probably the only way for us to experience a level of dequipment & conceptual ‘baseness’ that would at least attempt to mimic the purity of the Mk1 Panda.

    Some time ago, there was a nice text on DTW, btw., about Dacia, for one, failing to use its brand positions to introduce such a properly basic city car. I fully agree with the point it had, especially as they have at their disposal the Mk2 Twingo FWD platform (which is, mechanically-/ drivetrain-wise, alarmingly similar to their Ph.1/1.5 Logan/Sandero…
    so development cost isn’t what’s stopping them), which could be decontented even further, perhaps equipped with 4 smallish doors, and risk spiritually inheriting the true Renault R4 spirit – which is only artificially happening with the Duster, as, styling hints apart, it can never be a truly minimalistic, authentic and rural small car. Besides, it wouldn’t clash swords at all with the rather posh, and unashamedly oversized RWD current-gen Twingo.

    As the automotive mainstream gets increasingly digitalised and de-motorized, the collective urge to get a truly rorty, back-to-the-(Beetle?)-roots, ultra-simplistic small car, resonates not only in the souls of those who are initiated, but also gets a nod from a more widespread circle of commercial preference (the VAG Up!miigo, Jimny, etc.). To me those are refreshing and encouraging signs.

    Until Dacia (or Ford, for that matter…? Its decision to go ‘SUV or bust’ somehow does not exclude a “Ford-T”-inspired small, iconic vehicle… So I wouldn’t count it out…) gathers the corporate resilience to contemplate such a brave move, we can only hope that the Y-brand /, if not a joke, might be the one to aspire to in our quest for “animalistically minimalistic” automotive satisfaction.

    1. Glad you liked the article, thanks.

      Your talk of the Mk1 Panda made my only experice of that type surface from the depths of my memory: Many years ago I was one of 4 teenagers being transported by the Seat (Marbella?) copy of the very first version of the Mk1 Panda (rear leaf springs and all). It felt supremely dangerous and sounded like it was powered by a sewing machine in the process of exploding. Hilarious.

  3. Hi Al. Your screen shot immediately put me in mind of something other than a Yugo. A “simple” car (in design, if not technical terms) might arrive even sooner if this lovely Honda concept makes it to production without too many compromises:

    1. Daniel, I can only ascertain and reassure you that the Honda EV concept
      is indeed an object of wishful character for many people out there who are, like me, rather dissappointed by the generally neutering direction the industry is heading towards (exceptions are, of course, always there, luckily).

      And yest, the “Yugo” in the screenshot is indeed proportioned dangerously close to the Honda EV. You are absoluely spot-on with this observation (it didn’t occur to me).

      The Honda in question, if it makes it into showrooms (in any drivetrain form), will definitely be so thoroughly engineered, that it cannot be simple, nor simplistic. It might be decontented, but we all know that even the meagre Honda Logo shopping cart was of a rather sophisticated engineering & build nature – thereby demanding a certain respect that would (IMHO) otherwise ‘burden’ a properly rural vehicle (R4, 2CV, Panda Mk1). But they might understand, and might
      make it somewhat ‘rural’, rorty & floggable, just as well. We’ll see.

      There’s hope.

  4. We’ve had these Pandas as hire cars the past few years when on holiday in the Balearics, although not the Twin Air variant. I really like them and I liked the previous iteration a lot too. They seem to be the default car in that part of the world, which makes a lovely change from the lumbering great SUVs that are increasingly cluttering up the UK.

    Rightly or wrongly I always assumed the pervasive use of squircles was inspired by app icons on a smartphone; apps and app store culture would have been a prominent phenomenon when this model was conceived.

    1. John, your observation on the squircle’s aesthetic roots is very respectful and opens up an entire new chapter of thought.

      In any case, it is a tricky design “tool” which is very rarely employed in modern car design, and Centro Stile did a marvellous job in the balance between the number of spots on the car where it shows, and the overall
      success in avoiding it being a tedious, too obvious visual trick.

      What the Panda Mk3 exterior styling really shines, though, is the very successful integration of the Mk2’s iconic rectangular C-pillar window,
      which on the Mk3 is of a more rounded character, and yet somehow happily balances out the DLO and the (IMHO) Mk3’s overly long hood
      & overhang. I think it hides its real footprint rather well, and to me, marketing-wise, only the Mk2 deserves to (half-)justifiably carry the iconic Panda name. The Mk3 would be better off with a more honest name (PandaPlus, or similar), but the global commercial circumstances obviously put blunt marketing priorities foremost (justifiably so, from
      a corporate/managerial point of view).

  5. Al, if VW had followed your naming logic with, for example, the Golf, then the Mk VII would need to be “Golf XXXL” or similar to reflect its growth over the original model.

    I share your dismay at the ever growing footprint of cars in an increasingly congested world. This is exacerbated by the popularity of urban SUVs and the zero-sum “bigger is safer” arms race they have perpetuated.

  6. A fabulous insight, down here in the antipodes we have a few European ‘small’ cars available new, but in this market all that seems to sell is the Yaris, 2, Jazz and an occasional Fiesta. Much more interesting are the second hand Japanese imports that flood in – it’s a wonderful thing for us autophiles.

    Speaking of tiny quick cars, every so often examples of a mid-90s turbo kei car comes up for sale, which I find very tempting. Having owned a base model 1996 Suzuki Alto I adore the perfectly small exterior dimensions (as narrow as a mini and only 250mm longer) coupled with an eager and delightfully vocal carbureted 12 valve triple – it made for terrific fun.

    So I have a certain lust for the same model as a ‘Works’ version – that is with a turbo (20 extra horsepower) and such luxuries as air conditioning and electric windows (my poverty-spec example came without a cigarette lighter!). Not to mention the lovely body kit…

    Alas I swapped the first Alto for a 190E 2.6, with the iconic Teutonic solidity and a ride almost as supple as my current BX and some real grunt (competitively) to boot. Too bad it used double the fuel… I digress!

  7. This article, and many like it, is why I like to visit this site. It’s refreshing to see articles or reviews that aren’t just about the ‘usual suspects’! A tuned TwinAir Panda meets the needs of those who want something fun but without having the aggressive looks or harder suspension. Compare, maybe with the new Jazz 1.5 – useful performance advantage over the 1.3, but only in Sport trim. Then again, Nissan offered the Dig-T engine in all trims in the Pulsar, but there can’t have been enough customers (UK anyway) as they discontinued it.

    Didn’t Fiat plan to have a Panda ‘family’ in the same vein as the variants of the 500?

    Regarding a smaller Dacia, perhaps they still feel it would steal Renault sales? I seem to remember reading that the Dokker van isn’t offered in the UK as it would take sales from Renault’s Kangoo.

  8. Sadly, there’s not much money in tiny cars for the manufacturer. They have to be sold at prices less than a larger model, because the general public won’t pay more for perceived less. Since the fixed costs of running a factory remain the same, the only way to save cost is on the materials list of the product – even the assembly operations involve pretty much the same number of steps. Even distribution costs are not proptionally less. Customers provide an individual unit sale in a saturated market so simply selling more small cars to regain total profit is not an option – it is virtually impossible to do so.

    Even tiny cars of not that long ago didn’t have A/C and electric window lifts, infotainment systems, or the need to meet severe crash regulations requiring added structure. The build cost was much less, allowing decent return on investment.

    In that light, I’m not at all sure that criticism of Fiat’s small car strategy of the past decade is warranted. Enthusiast nostalgia overpowers the stark reality a manufacturer faces in developing a new small car – in our current ultra-capitalist world, parasitic (in the sense of unproductive but still for the moment tolerated and well-paid labour like bureaucracies and talking heads) financial types sit around theorizing about acceptable rates of return and advising what stocks to buy.

    Ford is under huge pressure in the US to “make more money” due to Wall Street wallies refusing to understand that a car is not an app or an overpriced iPhone. It requires huge investment to build cars, and an 8% return is about what can be expected. Nobody is going to be doing ten times as well like the successful end of the digital crowd routinely does. But in our financialized world, all that reality is simply dismissed as unimportant in our race to the bottom, and the uniform woofing about stock prices and dividends from the technically uninformed financial types who regard themselves as geniuses is frightening – no excuses are entertained as to differing market and manufacturing realities in various sectors.

    Raising capital and company credit ratings affecting loan percentage rates squeeze car companies further. It is the vicious circle of our financially ravenous times. So, making more loot per vehicle unit is all that remains to be exploited. Artistic licence is discounted, originality is dunned if it drives up costs, and the only place left for a bit of wiggle room is at the super-premium price levels. The rest of us will have to be content with silver or grey hatchbacks on stilts, EV pods, car-sharing and other ways of disguising our falling standard of living, the result of the never-ending looting of our pockets to line the pockets of the already too wealthy. It never seems to have been deliberately planned, but is the result of privatizing everything and putting a price on mere trivialities that were once free. The corollary of all that is all regular workers have to work more “productively”, cut vacation lengths, work longer hours and so on for no real increase in disposable income – the French have rebelled but will soon be herded back into line by the mantra of the times. We are already in Dystopia. A nice relaxed lifestyle with sufficient income for small indulgences is no longer on the cards for the majority as the middle class erodes away.

    Nice but tiny cars at inexpensive prices are simply no longer on the Menu of Supply.

    1. Bill, there is no doubt that margins on small cars are very tight for the reasons you cite.
      However, as I understand it, the major criticism of FIAT’s strategy not that the company hasn’t replaced the Panda or 500 (although both are getting rather long in the tooth) but rather that the company hasn’t maintained a range of competitive larger vehicles that would allow Panda and 500 customers to trade up within the brand, while providing FIAT the opportunity to make higher margins. The Tipo is ok, but is unlikely to be on anyone’s radar as a 500 replacement. Where are the crossovers to compete with (for example) Renault’s Captur, Kadjar and Koleos?

      The recently deceased Sergio Marchionne transformed FCA’s balance sheet by paying down the company’s enormous debt. That achievement is, however, lessened by the means by which it was achieved, at least in part; an apparent slashing of investment in vital new model programmes to sustain the company in the long term.

    2. In connection to Christopher Butt’s excellent article Giving Dimensions (II), cut-copy-paste- undo doesn’t work in automotive industry, so no easy ‘Money for nothing” in city cars business! Mazda 2s seem to be everywhere though, and in various colours!

    3. Bill, that is one very eye-opening analysis of the current industry situation. These are indeed much more complex circumstances
      than it seems.

  9. I want to add, the article’s title is “Adding dimensions (II)” and not “Giving…”

  10. Daniel, I would tend to think that the Fiat 500 was the pioneering effort in trying to successfully integrate high-end product positioning with the city-car segment.

    It is, therefore, quite possible that the margins on the 500 (having in mind that it is essentially a Panda underneath) were perhaps the vital aspect that actually saved the company. In addition to what Bill said above: “…and the only place left for a bit of wiggle room is at the super-premium price levels”, maybe Fiat’s true saviour was the bravery to go where noone succeeded, and manage to yield almost premium-class
    margin levels (as a percentage) in a relatively affordable & absolutely irresistible gem of a car the 500 / Trepiuuno was when it surfaced.

    I fully understand your dilemmas about (eg.) the Tipo not being really the “step-up” for a typical 500 owner. They seem to follow a very untypical strategy: turning to a radically premium-minded public with the 500, and (relatively) simultaneously, trying to embrace the diametrically opposed end of the market with the Tipo’s perceived buyers (to risk oversimplifying things: taxi drivers, developing-world oversized sedans etc..). All under one brand – it is probably this aspect where the Lancia brand could’ve been put to tremendous use, had there been enough resources & will to make it happen.

    It seems as if they are betting heavily on the forecast, that the massive increase in their brand cachet that the 500 delivered, would dissuade prospective Dacia (et al. …) buyers into a more ‘posh’ sounding (but also relatively richer in appearance too) Tipo. It seems as a risky maneuvre, admittedly, but in the overall context of having less possibilities to develop new models in the recent years, it just might be the only way to go, and might just as well succeed (especially if their sticker-price flexibility proves tangible, that is).

    To me, all taken into account, it all seems as a rather understandable approach – if a bit incoherent on first sight.

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