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Fiat Panda Lounge: The Story of Po – Car Review – $20K Challenge

Fiat Panda Lounge: The Story of Po – Car Review – $20K Challenge

I don’t think it’s possible to own a Fiat Panda without naming it. This is a car full of character, and I may go as far to say it would end up being a member of the family not too far into ownership. Why Po? Those with kids who watch movies like Kung Fu Panda will know, and our Panda was black so it was a no-brainer.

(This road test is part of the $20k Challenge)

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When I picked Po up, he had only done 40km, so I wasn’t sure how he would perform with such a low mileage. But then I drove Po. This two-cylinder turbo can move it! It sounds racy, it feels racy to drive and it’s a bundle of fun. Sure it has some downsides, but at $16,900, you’ve got to expect a few niggly things. $16,900! Still can’t get over that. This is a lot of car for not much money.

We tested the Lounge model, which is on a ‘limited time’ special at $16,900. At just $14,900 you can get the Easy model, which has Start/Stop system, DRLs, remote central locking, electric front windows, rear parking sensors, a 6-speaker stereo with steering wheel controls and Bluetooth connectivity, a 3-year warranty and Roadside Assistance. The Lounge model adds electric mirrors, 15” alloys, tinted glass, Dualogic transmission, side mouldings, climate aircon (!), driver’s seat height adjustment, fog lights and City Brake Control. For a couple of grand, it would be worth going to the Lounge model. Those alloys really make the car. Yes, it does seem a little strange to give models names like Easy and Lounge, but hey it’s European.

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The models both come with a mount for a TomTom GPS unit, and the car I had came with the actual TomTom unit. An unusual way of giving sat-nav, but it means when you leave the car you can take it with you if you are walking somewhere and aren’t sure of the route. The TomTom charges up while in the mount, and clipping it in and out was a one-handed affair. Nifty.

First Impressions

Po is small – the opposite of Po in the movie. Slim and short, but tall. Other first impression? This is a well-made car. A walk-around shows deep, luscious paint, good panel gaps and a sense that it’s put together properly. Certainly not what I had expected at $16,900. A glance inside the car shows some great seats – nicely padded, nicely styled and totally the opposite of what I thought a budget new car’s seats would look like. In fact the whole interior doesn’t shout budget at all. From the driver’s seat, you see no painted metal. Sure the dash is made of hard plastics, but again they don’t look cheap. There are enough extras in the Lounge model to satisfy most people – obviously you don’t get a reversing camera, but steering-wheel mounted controls for the Bluetooth connection to your phone as well as adjusting the stereo? Once again, pleasantly surprising on a budget car.

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Looking under the bonnet shows no paint on the body, just undercoat. This is getting more common on the cheaper new cars, and while it sounds bad, it looks just fine. The ‘Twin Air’, 2-cylinder turbo engine and 5-speed ‘Dualogic’ transmission is hiding under a big plastic cover. There’s not much to see although it was surprising to see a bracket that had surface rust on it. Not the end of the world, probably the car has been sitting on a wharf waiting for a ride to New Zealand at some point.

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You can see the bracket on the right that has a bit of something on it…

I think anyone’s first impressions of the Panda will be amazement of the price. It’s a good looking car, well equipped and beautifully made. That black paint of Po really stands out in quality. I can see why these are are popular in Europe.

$16,990? Why buy a used car…

What’s it like to live with?

It was interesting getting into the Panda after dropping off a Honda Jazz RS just minutes before. There wasn’t just a $10,000 difference in the two cars. The Panda was far noisier in the engine department than the Jazz. On start-up, the engine can sound like a diesel, especially when cold. When you move off, sometimes there are a few rattles from somewhere, but once you get driving, you don’t care. This is a fun car to drive. The engine sounds just add to the driving experience, and the Dualogic transmission is really a manual with an electronic clutch – you hear the engine revs drop between gears, so you feel like you are driving a manual. Memories of older Mercedes campervans here, exactly the same sensation. Initially you lift your foot off the gas when the revs die between gear changes, but once you realise that’s how it works, you just drive it normally. Officially it’s called a 5 speed sequential manual auto-clutch. Try saying that quickly after a few beers.

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Spot the ashtray

Once you get moving in the Panda, the engine noise dies down considerably. In fact on the motorway, you can barely hear it at all – it drives like a normal, 4-cylinder car at open road speeds. It does make a fair bit of noise going up a steep hill, but when the motor is not being pushed it’s absolutely fine.

But…there’s always a but. The Dualogic transmission may be the downfall of the Panda. Once you get used to it, it’s just fine, but initially I can see some drivers who are going to hate it. Nothing to do with the gear changes, they are fine, but trying to get Po into gear from standstill was problematic at times. Not through any mechanical fault, it’s just that there is a process to follow. Luckily the dashboard tells you what you are doing wrong (“put your foot on the brake” – doh!) but a few times I went from Neutral and tried to go forward and ended up being faced with lots of beeping noises from the dash. I got it in the end, and by the end of the test had it pretty well sorted, but I wonder if some people would find this just too hard and would rather have a ‘normal’ automatic. For me, I loved it. Most of the time.

I sometimes found myself giving the lever a nudge left into Manual mode more so than I would if it was Tiptronic. Maybe that would be just so it would hold a gear, and other times to force it to change down (or up) if I felt it needed it. Even when left in Automatic mode, you can nudge the lever up or down to force a gear change if you wanted to, then it would just revert to automatic again. I think I can best sum it up in saying that it’s a much more engaging car to drive than say the Jazz, or any car with a standard automatic transmission. I enjoyed it.

You would think running aircon on a two cylinder car would kill it. Not so. In fact I barely felt when the AC kicked in and out. This two-cylinder engine is a pearl. Ok it is noisy initially – no one is going to argue that point – but can it GO. Wheel spins (accidental of course), quick acceleration, great midrange,…you have to drive one to experience it. It rocketed up one of Wellington steepest streets with three adults in it. Two cylinders!! Yes the turbo no doubt helps hugely, but it’s just a fun car to drive and that engine adds to that fun. Once you wind it up a little, the sound reminds me of a Fiat 125 motor. Yum.

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Want to start in second gear, but you only have 2 cylinders? No worries! Even with a couple of people on board, 2nd gear starts are entirely doable. I am thinking you wouldn’t want to do them often, but it really displays the power of this little engine. Check out the specs in the comparison chart below – Po can hold his own in comparison to more cylinders and more capacity. Heck, it has more power than Fiat’s own 1.4 DOHC Punto! (63kw vs 57).

I did try the engine’s ECO mode. Once. Oh please don’t bother. Acceleration is sedate to say the least, and the engine just seems to labour constantly. I guess it must save gas, but it felt like I was using more gas pedal all the time to get anyway.

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Suspension isn’t in the realm of a French car, but it’s still very good. Some smaller bumps will made Po get a little jittery but on the whole, bumps are handled well. Cornering is fun – all adding to the overall experience – and the Panda rolls a bit when you start to push it, but the grip is there and it really inspires confident driving. This is a car you can really chuck about without getting into too much trouble.

I would expect for most people the Panda would be a second car, and save the ‘big’ car for long trips. But I think those people should look at the legroom in the Panda first. It’s not huge, but it’s very good. It’s not a patch on the Jazz, but nothing is. Legroom in the back seat for a 6-footer we took somewhere was just fine – no need to sit sideways at all. This is a car you could use for much of your daily use.

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In saying that, there’s no doubt the Panda would spend most of its time in a city. But it really lends itself to that – visibility is good, the upright seating position helps – heck, even the driver’s seat has height adjustment. All the seats are really comfortable, with excellent side support in the front. With the tallness of the car, rear headroom is good for its class. It super easy to get into and out of, and the size means parking is crazy simple – and remember, it even has rear parking sensors.

Many people would expect a budget car to be, well, budget. As mentioned, the Panda is well equipped for the price. I was surprised to see climate aircon and steering wheel controls for audio and phone. Mind you, you can’t listen to music on your phone through Bluetooth, you have to connect it via a cable or use a USB stick. Not a biggie but something to keep in mind. The alloys on the Lounge model are a stunning design – they look like they belong on a Lotus. Add in all the other features already mentioned and this is a fantastic price for a well-equipped new car.

Making phone calls from Po was frustrating due to the voice recognition system (another surprise feature in a budget car). She just could not understand me. I said, “call Tracey” and she came back with a different name every time. In the end I used my phone to dial and then used Bluetooth for the call. Call quality was good using Bluetooth. Po could be made to read out incoming texts on the dashboard, but I didn’t test this out.

The audio system is pretty standard, but does the job. You can play CDs, connect an iPod etc via an AUX cable, or just stick a USB stick with 1,000 songs on it in the USB slot and Let It Go. Sound quality was fine with the 6-speaker stereo. Since I couldn’t play my phone’s music through Bluetooth, I thought I’d stick some music on a USB stick, and use that instead. Yeah, nah. I got it in the end, but with no help of the manual I found that the USB stick had to be formatted for FAT32 instead of NTFS. I can see your eyes glazing over already…it’s just a different way that a USB stick is initially setup. If your USB stick isn’t FAT32, it won’t work. Google it, format it to FAT32, copy your songs onto it, and you are done. Tech speak is over now, so you can breathe again.

Speaking of manuals – don’t think for a minute you will be short-changed since this is a cheap car. You get LOADS of manuals with the Panda. It may not seem like much, but this was really surprising for me, I half expected to get a CD with some PDFs of the user manuals on it to save money.

Some light bedtime reading after you buy your Panda

Some light bedtime reading after you buy your Panda

Some other goodies that I didn’t mention that come on the Panda – fog lights front and rear, and would you believe adjustable headlights too? In fact one extra which I haven’t seen for years…wait for it…an ashtray! Okay it wasn’t your old-school pull out of the dash ashtray, but really a cup with a lid on it. Still an ashtray though – in fact the Panda actually has a cigarette lighter too, not just the socket for one. Seems those Europeans still love their ciggies.

City Steering is another feature of the Panda – pretty simple, just a switch on the dash. Push it, and the steering lightens up for city use. I found the steering just about right anyway, so left it off.

One of the cool little touches of the Panda include the ‘Panda Paw handbrake’. The handbrake, instead of being a long stick arrangement, it shaped (vaguely) like a panda’s paw. Not with the claws mind you, but sort of a square shape with rounded edges. Once you get used to it, a ‘normal’ handbrake seems like a crazy idea. So easy to use and comfortable in your hand.

I’ve got to talk about fuel consumption. Po is listed at a combined rating of 4.1 L/100Km. With mostly around town running, I averaged 7.2. That’s quite a big gap. In saying that, keep in mind the engine had only done 40km when I picked it up, and only 350 when I dropped it off. Hopefully with a better mix of around town and open road running, and more miles on the clock, it would drop considerably. Also, maybe you really need to run that Eco button to save a decent amount of gas.

What it’s up against:

Click here for our full $20k Challenge comparison chart

The good and the bad

Pros Cons
  • Relative space
  • Build quality
  • Handling/grip
  • Equipment levels
  • Fun Factor
  • Dualogic transmission
  • Value for money
  • Engine noise
  • Dualogic transmission
  • (potentially) fuel economy

What do we think?

You may have noticed a common word throughout this review: Fun. It’s a fun looking car that’s fun to drive, and it’s cheap. For the money, Po = Value. End of story.

This is a cool car. It won’t appeal to everyone – the transmission will see to that. But get used to that Dualogic gearbox and you will have a smile every time you drive your own Po.

I nearly gave Po a 4.5 Chevron rating. But while that engine just loves to be driven, the shakes and rattles it puts out definitely lose it points. Add to that the love/hate relationship with the Dualogic trans, and you get yourself an easy 4 Chevrons. It will be interesting to see how the Panda stacks up against the other cars in our $20K Challenge!

Rating – Chevron rating 4 out of 5

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Autoclique would like to thank Gazley in Wellington for supplying us with the review car.

We would not have been able to complete the $20K Challenge without Gazley’s kind assistance.

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Read about the Panda on the Fiat New Zealand website, here.

Vehicle Type 5 door hatchback
Starting Price $14,990
Tested Price $16,990
Engine 2 cylinder, turbo with intercooler
Transmission 5sp Seq. Manual Auto-Clutch
0 – 100 kph 11.5
Kerb Weight  1050Kg
Length x Width x Height  3653x1882x1551
Cargo Capacity  225 Litres
Fuel Tank  37 Litres
ANCAP Safety Ratings  5 Star (based on 1.2L model)
Warranty  Warranty 3 Years/150,000 km
Fiat Roadside Assistance 3 years/150,000 km

How an earth to start this? I've been car/bike/truck crazy since I was a teen. Like John, I had the obligatory Countach poster on the wall. I guess I'm more officially into classic cars than anything else - I currently have a '65 Sunbeam Tiger that left the factory the same day as I left the hospital as a newborn with my mother. How could I not buy that car? Recently my wife and I drove across the USA in a brand-new Dodge Challenger, and then shipped it home. You can read more on www.usa2nz.co.nz I am heavily into the motorbike scene as well, and my current ride is a BMW K1200GT. There is nothing like a ride on a bike!

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