I like fast cars. Always have done. I’ve had my fair share of hot hatches over the years, and I have a particular fondness for the visceral immediacy and ASBO whistles of a well-deployed turbo. When my little daughter popped onto the scene a couple of years ago, my first consideration was ‘what’s the fastest car in my budget that also happens to have ISOFIX and a decent boot?’, hence the arrival of the first-gen SEAT Leon Cupra.
That was succeeded by a Skoda Octavia vRS because, well, that’s got a turbo too. What I’m getting at is, having tested some pretty racy motors in the last few weeks (a Ford RS200, for example, a Morgan 3-Wheeler, the very Escort that won the 1970 World Cup rally…), my heart wasn’t immediately a-flutter when the Panda TwinAir arrived.
I thought it would be mundane, uninvolving, a little drab. And if you’ve ever driven one, you’ll know that I was an utter cretin to have ever had such nowhere-near-the-mark thoughts. Seriously, what a berk. The truth of the matter is, the Panda TwinAir is a constant, relentless delight.
In hindsight, it is sort of logical that my inner teenager may not have been all that stoked by the spec list. I mean, it’s only got two cylinders for a start. A total displacement of 875cc? Hmm. I could probably drink more than that without having to pause for air. But my inner teenager doesn’t think things through and is seldom logical or objective.
Look at it this way: the Panda’s engine is half of a mainstream four-pot, right? And simple maths bumps that up to a rather more robust 1,750cc unit that’s been cleaved in twain – and the missing half of the engine has been replaced by a cheeky little turbo. Which is good. I like turbos, I might have mentioned. The upshot of all of this is a handy 85bhp, which may not sound all that trousers-on-fire-ish, but as the tired adage goes, ‘it’s not how big it is, but what you blah blah etc’.
Part of the MultiAir family, the engine is fiendishly clever. It uses technology similar to BMW’s Valvetronic system (which throttles the engine via the intake valves, varying lift and timing to control things), but instead controls the system via hydraulic fluid between the intake valves and camshaft, so the two can be de-coupled. It gets a bit more complicated than that and explaining it requires flipcharts and long white coats, so it’s easier just to look at the numbers: on average, a MultiAir engine will produce 10% more power and 15% more torque than its equivalent traditional engine, while reducing both fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 10%.
So, that’s the science-y bit out of the way. Naturally you won’t notice all of this eggheadery going on as you slip the TwinAir into first and head out into the metropolis, but what you will notice is the noise: it sounds like a lawnmower. And I mean this in the most positive possible way, it’s a magnificent noise, a genuine headturner on the city streets as people crane their necks to see what that offbeat buzzing could be.
It’s a hell of a revvy engine too (which is addictive, and could explain why I got nowhere near the claimed mpg figures – in theory it can deliver up to 74mpg, although I’m unashamed to say that I was hovering around 18-19mpg in town, and even with a few long motorway journeys I never got it above 33mpg. I don’t care. Life’s too short to worry about frugality), and as you get used to the car it’s easy to find yourself unexpectedly bouncing off the rev limiter. You don’t get that in a Corsa.
Ah yes, the Corsa. I’d initially used that as my yardstick for what to expect here – similar size, similar price, similar power – which I can now see was a thoroughly stupid approach. I’d had a 1.2-litre Corsa as a courtesy car earlier in the year, and it was one of the most heart-wrenchingly depressing things I’d ever driven – utterly joyless, without soul, would genuinely have been quicker to walk everywhere – but it has literally nothing in common with the TwinAir whatsoever, barring the number of wheels. It’s just in a different class. Whereas the Corsa is an appliance, the Panda is the connoisseur’s choice; an eager, peppy little thing, designed for people who feel that the 500 is a bit obvious.
Read any review of the Panda TwinAir and you’ll find people saying ‘it’s quick enough’ or ‘it’s unexpectedly brisk’. I don’t think this is praise enough for the way the little poppet performs. It’s actually Genuinely Fast, capitals intentional. I mean, sure, it’s not going to trouble a Fiesta ST or a 208 GTI – indeed, it wouldn’t even see which way they went – but that’s not the point of it.
What you do find is that the quoted 0-62mph time of 11.2s seems a little conservative. It fairly bounds up the road with nary a thought for appropriate behaviour or urban plodding; that wooshy little turbo serves as a magnificent counterpoint to the go-kart chatter-chatter-chatter of the gravelly little motor. It’s not just ‘quick for a twin-cylinder’, it’s quick fullstop. Again, not GTI-fast, but more than fast enough.
It’s a stylish little thing too. I’m a big fan of the squircle (I thought the Allegro’s Quartic wheel was an admirably bold concept), and there are squircles EVERYWHERE inside the Panda – the knobs, the dials, the artfully multi-coloured motifs on the seats… everything’s been designed with a nineteen-eighties set square, then had the corners polished off to mimic the effect of wind erosion.
It gives the car a very cared-for feel, like it’s been designed by people who actually wanted to use it rather than just sell it in vast numbers. And peer closely at the doorcards, you’ll see millions of tiny letters spelling out ‘PANDAPANDAADNPADNNDPADNAPNDAN’. It’s all rather lovely
The details have been nicely thought out – I’m very into the holistic approach, and Fiat have it nailed here. Take the stereo, for example: the rotary dial for the radio volume has the universal symbol for power emblazoned upon it, which obviously shifts position as you rotate it. This made my OCD gland itch, until I realised that you can turn the knob so that the symbol’s the right way up, then adjust the volume with the rocker switch on the steering wheel instead. Oh, frabjous day – a car developed by nerds like me!
This attention to detail extends to the car’s overall behaviour, it’s a rich platter of entertaining quirks. I commuted from Wandsworth to the office in Kensington for a week in it, and noticed that when the engine was cold and I was in stop-start traffic on Wandsworth Bridge, the uphill incline combined with the resonance of the engine meant that if I deployed the handbrake while in neutral, the tail of the car would hit a harmonic and naturally bob up and down like an eager puppy straining at its leash. Some might call that a lack of refinement, but I’d say that was character. I’ve never felt a car do that before. I love quirks like that – cheap city cars need character, and the TwinAir has it in spades.
I’m also very much in favour of the way the Panda handles. Now, I’m the first to praise a car for razor-sharp apex-hunting turn-in – or to slag it off for being too wallowy or imprecise – but I reckon the Panda is perfectly judged in the way that the handling is merely pretty good rather than super-refined. There’s logic to this. If you want a point-and-squirt hot hatch that’ll make your spine tingle on country lanes, there are certain compromises you have to accept: firmness of suspension, a ride height that won’t enjoy speedbumps, that kind of thing.
The Panda’s designed for the city, so it’s soft and a bit marshmallowy (and there’s rather more air visible twixt tyre and arch than is fashionable), but this all means that you can beat about town in it without it wearing you out. And the way it handles isn’t crap, it’s just soft – recalibrate your palms and buttocks for a looser set of responses, and you’ll soon find yourself enjoying the way the nose begins to wash wide on full-throttle corners before pulling you sharply back on-line. Once you’ve readjusted your expectations, it’s a hoot. And you don’t have to come to a total standstill every time you arrive at a speedbump. (Something to think about there, Astra BiTurbo…)
The all-important family test saw the Panda pass with flying colours as well. While the seating position is rather higher and more van-like than the usual test cars I force my wife and daughter to come and play in, they were quickly won over by the sheer volume of squircles. The interior design – I hate to use the word ‘funky’, but this is one of the few places where it’s actually the best description – won many family points, simply because I suspect my wife had the bitter memory of the dishwater Corsa firmly in mind too.
The most important thing about the Panda TwinAir is this: you have to try it to get it. On paper, it sounds like a functional and sensible thing – something to be bought by skinflints who just need a means of getting from A to B while not using too much dino-juice in the process. But realistically, it’s a hidden gem designed for the discerning petrolhead to use as an under-the-radar stealth vehicle. It’ll more than keep up with the traffic on the motorway, it won’t shudder your backbone to bits, it won’t annoy you in traffic, and it sounds hilarious. It’s a £12k city car that’ll put a smile on your face every time you drive it. And how many of those are there…?
Photos © Daniel Bevis.