PetrolBlog is delighted to welcome a new guest blogger to our dusty little corner of the interweb. Tom Richards is a PR exec in the automotive industry and, like the rest of us, is a keen petrolhead. For his first blog he has penned a Real World Review of his Fiat Panda 1.2. You can expect more from Tom in the future, but in the meantime check out his twitter feed @teorichards. Tom would like to point out that the views expressed here are his own and not those of his employer.
With that out of the way, over to Tom…
Buying a second-hand car, when you sit back and think about it, is really little more than a form of automotive speed dating. It’s a matchmaking process during which you’re given a brief window of time to weigh up a car’s various merits and drawbacks, make a snap judgement on how appropriate they’d be to live with, before being shuffled on to the next car.*
At the end of the day, you’ll have seen a number of potential candidates, some more appealing than others. You might reject a car for being a tad ugly, or perhaps it’s a little on the temperamental side. Dodgy aromas are generally likely to put anyone off, while mistreatment by a former owner might make the thing fragile when the going gets tough.
However, once you’ve seen enough cars, and worn a metaphor so thin you can see sunlight through it, eventually your perseverance will be rewarded.
It is for this reason that I recently found myself settling on a relatively unharmed 2005 Fiat Panda 1.2. With a heady combination of air conditioning, Blaupunkt CD player and a natty set of steel wheels. All four of them.
There are a few reasons why I settled on the Panda, but the steering isn’t one of them. It really is as light as every other review suggests, and after four months and 8,000 miles of ownership, I’m still surprised at how little effort is required to turn the wheel in ‘city’ mode.
It’s not that the setup is uncommunicative – and it’s really rather direct when you build up some speed. It just feels as though it’s had a little too much champagne and is feeling just a tad squiffy as a result. On the flip-side, the light steering makes parking a doddle, and to drive around central London with the ‘city’ mode on is to experience true relaxation.
Squiffy steering aside, there are numerous other niggles that only struck me once I’d handed over the money and spent some time with the car. At anything over 20mph, for instance, the washer jets aim windscreen cleaner not at the windscreen, but directly at the blades. The heaters in the footwell are also positioned such that, on a cold day, one foot melts from the blast of hot air, while the other remains frozen.
Finally, the trip computer is, at best, over-optimistic and, at worst, a despicable liar. I’m used to trip computers reading 5-10 per cent over what the car is actually managing, but after a particularly economic drive, the trip computer read 72.3mpg. When I came to fill it up and worked it out properly, it was ‘only’ 58-point-something. Not bad, but I’m forever left disappointed at its deceit.
Ignoring the fact that my car is a fuel economy phony, however, there’s a disarming honesty to the Panda which had me warming to it in the first place. The original Panda was sold to Italy’s wizened peasantry as the very embodiment of simplicity and sincerity. Like Dante Giacosa’s original Cinquecento, the original Panda stood for everything that was good about basic, no-frills motoring, and the current model is no different.
I love the slightly boxy design, the comically small doors and the relative lack of pointless fripperies you might find on other cars in the class. I picked one up with air conditioning, but that’s about it – there are no real driver aids, no unnecessarily-complicated electrical systems…It’s all rather refreshing.
Throw in a fizzy little 1,242cc, 4-cylinder engine, and you’re laughing. My commute everyday is a 116-mile round-trip and, as already stated, it makes for some pretty impressive economy figures when driven sensibly (read: slowly). At motorway speeds, it’s civilised, sensible, and has just enough poke to dispatch the occasional lorry.
Show it something a little more interesting – the B-roads around my parents’ house in Dorset, for example – and it revs perfectly happily up to 5,000rpm (at which point, all 59 horsepowers are doing their thing). It’s a sentiment regularly expressed by a number of more clued-up journalists, but it’s such a lively little engine that you always feel that the car should be set up to idle at 3,000rpm, rather than 800.
You never go anywhere quickly in the Panda, but on the right road, at 40mph, in third gear, the steering seems to weight up a little, the engine gets a bit growly, and it’s spectacular fun. Bouncy, yes – the wheelbase is barely larger than that of a silver cross pram, with a similarly uncomplicated suspension setup – but fun. I’ve even taken to calling it ‘The Grizzly’, a far cry from the docile, passive nature of an actual Panda.
Understeer is pretty much always on the cards, and my previous car, a knackered, old, hand-me-down Ford Escort just carried on running wide, no matter what you did with the middle and right pedals. Chronic lift-off understeer, how about that? But lift off in The Grizzly and the nose instantly tucks into a corner. At 20mph.
In fact, soon you learn to lift-off for corners, rather than braking. That’s the trick to driving the Panda quickly – never brake. It’s not that the car gets all unstable when you reach for the anchors – it’s never going fast enough for that – but you do tend to lose momentum rather rapidly. Put the brakes on, and the car punishes you for your lack of commitment with a sudden loss in mobility.
It has the odd electrical niggle, shows the occasional flaw and is a consummate liar about its consumption – like a good mate too afraid to come clean about how much he actually drinks. But, generally, it’s a simple, honest-to-goodness, cheap, fun runaround, with skinny tyres, five doors, bright blue seats and a light-hearted nature.
And steel wheels. All four of them.
*I should make it plain that I have, in fact, never been speed dating – merely thinking about it brings me up in hives – however, this is the image I have in my mind, having recently heard about speed dating from a friend.