Enjoy life in the latest little Fiat

HOW times change. The first Fiat Panda arrived in 1980 and has become a design classic, thanks to a strict approach to keeping things simple and cheap.

The result was a functional, slab-sided car for people without much money, and with simple, flat (and cheap) glass, simple (and cheap) suspension and a clever (and cheap) rear seat of canvas stretched between two poles that lifted out to produce a Panda van, more or less.

Now, more than six million sales later, comes the third generation Panda and it’s no longer nearly so utilitarian, or so cheap. Competitively priced is how I’m sure Fiat would put it, but it’s arrived in a fiercely fought part of the new car market and had better be good.

It looks like a slightly larger (all round) and more rounded version of the second generation Panda that arrived in 2003 and is, says Fiat, safer and more economical than before.

It also comes with the chance to have a potential design classic under the bonnet if you tick the right box, as I did for the test car.

Called TwinAir, it’s a tiny two-cylinder 875cc petrol engine that uses a turbo and clever technology to provide more power than you’d expect, and claimed terrific economy (although more of that later).

Priced from £9,400 to £12,250, there’s a choice of three petrol engines and a lone diesel. In more rural parts of Italy, physical and spiritual homeland of the Panda, you’ll still see plenty of old models about, a lot of them with four-wheel drive and ideal for life on a smallholding.

Expect to see all-wheel drive offered on the newcomer before too long, but on Britain’s mainly tarred and only occasionally snowed upon roads, the front-wheel drive Panda ought to do well enough.

The test car, faced with nothing more onerous than some pretty Cotswolds lanes, looked the part on the outside with simple, smoothly contoured lines and, inside, did a decent job of disguising the fact it had to be built to a strict price limit.

Without driver’s seat height adjustment (£50 extra) and with the optional (£720) space robbing sunroof fitted there was an immediate conflict between head and roof, eased by retracting the roof blind and letting the sun shine in through the tinted glass above. A car without the sunroof proved more accommodating.

Most of the new Panda’s increased length has been given over to increased rear seat room, helped by thinning the front seatbacks. From September you’ll be able to buy a Panda with a sliding rear seat, while the car is now available with a middle seat headrest and safety belt to make use of the new car’s extra width.

But the Panda is all about driving, once you’ve fired up the TwinAir engine and pulled away, to a soundtrack that’s recalls a toned down race track refugee. Give it some revs and this little baby fairly flies, although you’ll have a hard time checking its pace thanks to a desperately overstyled speedometer face. A ride that turns choppy on less than perfect surfaces didn’t help.

After 40 miles of fun the trip computer read 44mpg. Not bad but not brilliant. Time to try harder on the economy front. My passenger switched seats for the drive back to base and played very lightly with the accelerator as though it was heated to furnace temperature and changed up when the dash indicator told him too.

All this restraint improved matters to a still-middling 49mpg. There’s only one conclusion; you might as well enjoy life in the latest little Fiat.