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