|Its enthusiasm for hard driving is as infectious as it is enlightening|
If the soggy sheep and swaying pine trees that populate the region could talk, they’d tell tales of the day they witnessed a Ferrari Enzo, F50, F40 and 288 GTO together for the first time, or when a 360 Challenge Stradale battled with a Porsche 996 GT3 RS, Noble M400 and Lotus Exige. However, even these seasoned veterans of evo road tests have never seen us arrive in anything quite like this: the new Fiat Panda 100HP.
We’re big fans of the standard Panda. It’s an honest and able little car, and while we are guilty of poking fun at its lack of pace by strapping it onto a trailer and firing it down the Santa Pod strip behind a G55 AMG (evo 092), we reckon this funky 100HP model is about as evo as £10K’s worth of new car gets. And to prove it we’ve brought it to our favourite test location.
Despite enduring some terrible times of late, Fiat is fighting back. And it’s no coincidence that the Italian giant is doing so by reinventing its range of small cars. The Panda, Punto and Grande Punto have re-established Fiat’s credibility and mainstream desirability with their impressive combination of distinctive design and satisfying substance. Now, with the groundwork done, Fiat is beginning to target people like us, with the more focused Panda 100HP.
There’s no doubt Fiat has a rich heritage of cool small cars. Not just urban cool either, but snorty, highly developed racing cars with a glittering competition pedigree. Cars like those fettled at Middle Barton Garage situated on the edge of the Cotswolds. So, with a few hours to kill, we make a slight detour and drop in on Tony Castle-Miller, proprietor of MBG and all-round Abarth fanatic.
Amongst the gems lurking within the workshop is Castle-Miller’s gorgeous Fiat Abarth 1000 TC Radiale, a pocket-sized ex-works race car with its engine literally poking out the back and wheelarch flares that evoke the purpose and muscle of a Porsche 993 GT2. It literally bristles with attitude and acts a vivid reminder that Mini doesn’t own exclusive rights to small but heroic historic racers.
Unsurprisingly, the Panda is somewhat overshadowed by its gnarly forebear, but there’s definitely something about the newcomer that draws you in. It too wears flared wheelarches, which conceal a wider track front and rear, while fat 15in alloys are tucked a little deeper into the body thanks to lower and stiffer suspension that features new springs, dampers and firmer bushing material. Larger disc brakes (257mm front, 240mm rear) hide behind the spokes, while beneath the bonnet lurks a 1.4-litre, 16-valve engine mated to a six-speed gearbox. Though it hasn’t been bestowed with the scorpion badge of the legendary Fiat tuner, it’s every inch the miniature hot hatch.
As you slot yourself behind the fat, leather-trimmed steering wheel, you can’t help thinking that the seat is too flat, too hard and set too high. The wheel moves up and down, as does the driver’s seat, but it would be better if the steering column also had some fore and aft adjustment. That said, despite these unpromising first impressions you can still get comfortable behind the wheel. On the long haul up to our overnight stop in Conway, the 100HP proves surprisingly adept at long distances, both Andy Morgan and I emerging without an ache between us.
The gear lever is set high in the centre console in an MPV-like fashion, but far from making the little Fiat feel mumsy, the proximity of the stubby stick to the palm-filling wheel is such that you can snap from gear to gear with brilliant economy of movement. In what promises to be an urgent little sporting hatch, this is a good thing.
In fact the whole interior is terrifically functional and satisfyingly stylish. There’s plenty of door-bin and dashtop space, as well as a trio of snug cupholders in which you can stash coffee, keys or a mobile phone. A pod of clear analogue instruments is supplemented with a bright, expensive-looking LCD panel. This shows the time, outside temperature, the position of the adjustable headlights and also the trip computer readout, which you can toggle through via a button on the end of the windscreen wiper stalk.
Similarly, the centre console combines aesthetics and ergonomics to great effect, with a pleasingly symmetrical array of heating, ventilation and stereo functions. Not only are they simple and intuitive to use, but they also have that damped, high-quality feel you simply don’t expect in a car at this price point. Nor do you expect a six-speed gearbox, air-conditioning and Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, yet all these features (and more) are included in the Panda 100HP’s £9995 on-the-road price.
Next morning we get the chance to point the Panda down our favourite and most challenging Welsh roads. Far from feeling overwhelmed, it rises to the challenge with genuine conviction. Revelling in the give-and-take combinations of crests, dips, right-angle corners and fast, open turns, it shrugs off the changing surfaces and thrives in the challenging conditions. Its enthusiasm for hard driving is as infectious as it is enlightening, not to mention a complete re-education for anyone spoilt by bigger and more powerful machinery (i.e. anyone who works at evo!).
The brakes are grabby in the first few millimetres of travel, which in turn means they lack sufficient progression for smooth heel-and-toe downshifts, but when you’re really going for it they aren’t so big an issue, simply because the Panda has so much grip and poise – even in the pouring rain – that you simply don’t need to use them that much. You can almost hear the fizzy little Fiat egging you on, goading your lack of commitment with comments like ‘If you’re braking, you’re not trying hard enough!’ In this car, forward momentum is precious and deserves to be preserved.
Such agility and lack of inertia are the benefits of being so small and light but, rather like an original Mini, if you encounter a series of awkwardly spaced bumps, the Panda gets a little overexcited. While little manages to wrong-foot it sufficiently for you to lift off the throttle, such bumps create sufficiently sharp vertical movement to have you pogoing in your seat to comedy effect. Thankfully there’s plenty of headroom!
Like all the best front-wheel-drive cars, the Panda 100HP works even when driven beyond the limit of its tyres. The attractive alloy rims may only be 15in in diameter, but they wear chunky 195/45 R15 Goodyear Eagle F1s that deliver prodigious grip, which eventually lets go in progressive fashion. It’s when these baby gumballs yield to lateral g that the Panda shines brightest, digging harder for purchase and continuing to deliver drive even when the nose begins to slide.
Composed and predictable, not only does the Panda carry great speed into the heart of a corner, but it also has enough in reserve to enable you to get back on the power good and early, which keeps the eager 1.4-litre engine simmering away nicely. You know you’ve maxxed-out the little Fiat’s chassis when the inside front wheel goes light and begins to scrabble, but even then it does so in a controlled manner, the wheel spinning but not so much as to impede your corner exit. True, it doesn’t have an abundance of torque to contain, 97lb ft at 4250rpm to be precise, but then all things are relative, and the polished way in which the Panda makes use of what it has is clear for even the most blinkered car-snob to see.
The limits might be high, but that doesn’t mean you’re denied involvement or entertainment below ten-tenths. With the Sport button pushed, which adds weight to the electric power steering and enlivens the throttle response (just like a BMW M Power product), the Panda is a tactile, well-weighted device. Steering feel is slightly artificial, but its response is direct without feeling overly jumpy, while there’s a surprisingly detailed flow of information through the wheel. Not only can you feel how hard the tyres are working, but you can hear them too, with a satisfying undertone of sticky tread blocks pushing ever harder into the road surface.
ESP is a £420 option, but unless you’re of a particularly nervous or dangerously ham-fisted disposition it’s complete overkill. Worse, you can’t fully disengage it. Fortunately our test car doesn’t have it. Better, we say, to let your hands and feet guide the Panda and spend the four hundred quid or so on optional side and window airbags as a worst-case contingency!
You could be forgiven for thinking fun can only be found in the corners, but the Panda is no slouch in a straight line. We didn’t have the time to challenge the claimed 0-62mph time of 9.5sec, nor the 115mph maximum. Suffice to say that it feels good for the boasts. In fact, if our experience in Wales is anything to go by, rarely has 99bhp translated into more entertaining progress.
Seemingly whenever you look down at the speedo the Panda’s doing a good 80mph. Uphill, down dale, mid-corner, the stubby speedo needle will be nudging licence-losing territory. Best of all, despite the suggestively flared wheelarches, sporty rims and clipped roof spoiler, you seem to slip under the radar of drivers in bigger or allegedly quicker cars. They simply see the red Panda badge and assume you’re on your way to church, school or supermarket.
I lost count of the number of drivers who felt the cold slap of humiliation as the Panda’s bluff, blacked-out tail rebuffed their lazy, assumptive overtaking efforts, even on dual carriageways. Be in no doubt, with a determined driver behind the wheel this diminutive Italian hatchback is the annoying fly you’ll struggle to swat, no matter how fast you think your car is.
Naturally you have to work the smooth, free-spinning 16v engine hard to indulge in such giant-slaying activities, but with six well-judged ratios and one of the sweetest shift actions we’ve experienced in a long time, the Fiat thrives on having its socks caned off. I haven’t driven the new Mini Cooper yet, but its drivetrain will need to be pretty special to put the Panda in the shade.
The 100HP’s fuel economy was a source of joy, too. The tank’s so tiny you have to be extremely brave with the fuel light to create enough space to squeeze £30 of super unleaded into it. Choose regular unleaded and you’ll do well to spend £25 at the pumps. Even so you can expect to cover 200 miles between fills, even cruising at 90mph. The lowest mpg we saw on the trip computer was 34, and that was after a day of brain-out B-road thrashing. Drive with less urgency and you could probably stretch that to 250 miles.
In case you hadn’t noticed, we love the Panda 100HP. It’s the most accomplished and exciting small car we’ve driven in ages, encapsulating everything evo stands for in one extremely capable package. It is of course possible to buy a host of iconic used cars for £10K, as we’ll be discovering over the page, but none can boast group 5 insurance, three years’ warranty and minimal running costs, and I doubt many will be much more fun to drive. There’s no doubt in our minds, Fiat has a new hero on its hands.