What is it?
It might look like the previous Panda with its edges filed smooth, but this is more than just a facelift. The basic outline is similar, with the upright tail and the extra rear side windows, but every external panel has changed, there's a happy-looking face and a generally cartoonish air pervades outside and in.
The new Panda is claimed to emulate the functional, carefree approach of the original 1980 Panda – a car that had flat glass, hammock-style seating and an open-plan dashboard. And it’s become Italian again – with production switching to Fiat’s Pomigliano d'Arco factory near Naples – the previous Panda came from Tychy in Poland, a factory that’s now fully occupied with producing 500s, Lancia Ypsilons and the occasional Ford Ka.
Under the skin the new Panda has a development of the previous car’s platform, with larger and softer suspension bushings, a stiffer rear torsion beam and front strut top mounts which decouple spring from damper. Mere details? They are important, as we shall see. Engines mirror those of the Fiat 500, with a 68bhp four-cylinder 1.2, an 84bhp 0.8-litre two-cylinder turbo ‘TwinAir’ and a 74bhp, 1.3-litre turbodiesel, all mated to five-speed gearboxes.
Unusually in a small car, there's an optional automatic braking aid which triggers if you're travelling under 18mph and the Panda thinks you're going to drive into the obstacle in front.
What's it like to drive?
The last Panda was good fun in a basic, chuckabout way but a bit crude, especially if bends or bumps were involved. This new one feels much more solid and refined, isolating road shocks well while feeling keener to change direction. Ultimately it's an understeerer with little scope for trimming the line with the accelerator, but it grips well, doesn't flop into roll and feels agile enough to be fun on a twisting road.
We tried the TwinAir version, whose two-cylinder thrum suits the Panda's cheeky character well. The power and torque figures are unchanged from those in the 500, but a revised throttle map (or rather the valve-opening map, because the TwinAir has no throttle as such) sharpens the initial response and makes the Panda feel extra-sharp and lively. It also accentuates the slight turbo lag felt on the second-to-third upshift, which is a large ratio-gap to bridge. The 500's vibratory torque delivery at low revs has been smoothed out here.
You sit quite high, with the high-mounted gear lever in easy reach. Pressing buttons can disable the stop-start system or switch the steering to super-light city mode. The steering itself feels more fluid and natural than the 500's, with less artificial resistance around the centre. The handbrake resembles a computer mouse with the release button on the side, but it's a proper mechanical lever and the ergonomics work well.
How does it compare?
The Panda is a true supermini, but it's a little longer than before. It's also longer than its arch-rival, Volkswagen's Up, yet has slightly less rear legroom and boot space. A rear passenger behind a tall driver would not have a good time. Compared with a Fiat 500 it's roomier, more versatile and more the cool gadget, less the fashion object. And of course it has five doors. The energetic TwinAir engine tips it for us versus the Up, but don't expect the real-world fuel economy to be anywhere near the official average of 67.3mpg.
Anything else I need to know?
There's a sliding rear seat option which further reduces rear legroom for a bootspace gain, and three trim levels (Pop, Easy, Lounge).
All three engines have low official CO2 figures, the TwinAir combining its 99g/km with a 11.2sec 0-62mph time. UK sales start in February, with prices ranging from around £8700 to £12,500.