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Life used to be easy for the Panda. It
launched against generally rubbish opposition. The new one enters a different,
more hostile world.

Most obviously VW has parked its tank on
Fiat’s lawn, in the shape of the Up. But there’s also the Kia Picanto, winner
of a Top Gear award this year for being a generally terrific tiddler. Or the
Hyundai i10. Include the three-door posse and you get the Twingo, the Ka or
Fiat’s very own sibling-rival 500.

If the Panda shows any weakness, this lot will
nick its bamboo straight out from under its nose.

In the measurables, it does well. It fields
very competitive performance and economy, good safety, comfort and enough space
to tackle those rivals. It’s longer by a pencil’s length than the old one, in
the name of a bigger boot.

But does it have the joy a baby car should
 have?

Fiat brings the unique Twinair engine to bear
again here. It pulls like a bubbly little locomotive, and in the lower gears
out-performs the ability of those little tyres to apply all the surge. In
fifth, no other tiny car has this sort of effortless motorway fast-line smarts.
If you drive it like that the economy won’t be special, but if you go gently
you can stretch fuel. And the notional economy potential is what gets it its
low-tax 99g/km CO2 rating.

Gallery: the new Fiat Panda

Pity the Twinair is an expensive option.
Still, if you can’t or won’t rise to it, don’t feel snubbed. The basic
version’s 1.2-litre four-cylinder doesn’t mind being wrung out to within an
inch of its life. It’s quick enough for the suburbs.

There’s a cheer to the way the Panda goes
around bends and roundabouts, a willingness the Up doesn’t quite manage. The Up
rides better, but again the margin isn’t a deal-breaker. The Fiat is supple
without being floaty, and effectively muffles the sounds of the suspension hitting
 bumps.

The design has been growing on me. It avoids
the Bambi look, and there’s strength in the big wheel-arches. The main motif is
the ‘squircle’ – rounded-off squares and oblongs that define everything from
the fuel cap to the side windows to the speedo and handbrake lever. It gives
the whole thing a distinct design harmony. On the other hand, if you don’t
actually like the squircle, it’ll annoy your eyes as some endless chirrupping
noise would your ears.

There aren’t any chirruping noises actually.
Or rattles. The Panda is properly made. Everything fits well. In the cabin,
solid materials come in novel textures and colours. The old Panda had a
dashboard made of blister pack. The new one has a dashboard made of dashboard.

Solid effort all round then. But given the
current opposition, it couldn’t have got away with anything less.

Gallery: the new Fiat Panda

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