Fiat Panda

Cute, cuddly and far from useless
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Indy Lifestyle Online

There is no doubt about it. If you want a car to appeal on an emotional level, you are better off giving it a name than a number. Fiat knows this better than most; it's easier to love a Topolino than a 126, if you can remember what that was. Perhaps that is why, after years of 124s, 131s and the rest, the company reverted to names for its cars.

There is no doubt about it. If you want a car to appeal on an emotional level, you are better off giving it a name than a number. Fiat knows this better than most; it's easier to love a Topolino than a 126, if you can remember what that was. Perhaps that is why, after years of 124s, 131s and the rest, the company reverted to names for its cars.

The earliest of the named models was the Ritmo. That it had to be rebranded Strada for the UK suggests that Fiat knew it hadn't quite hit the mark. But with its next attempt, in 1980, Fiat hit the jackpot. Think of the positive associations that the panda evokes; everybody loves the world's cuddliest endangered species. And the fact that the poor panda is a bit useless - it has difficulty just surviving, let alone doing the entertaining stuff other animals manage, like spinning balls on their noses - doesn't put us off. On the contrary, its vulnerability makes us feel protective towards it and love it even more.

This disarming cuteness is a handy thing for a cheap small car to have, too. Features that would be criticised in other motors are forgiven because they contribute to the car's character. A case in point was the original Panda's hammock-style seating, which brought to mind those deck chairs you bought on your holiday. MG Rover should have learnt this lesson. If it had called its small car "Fluffy Bunny by Rover" we would have heard less about its dodgy trim and instead be reading about how it had been swept to the top of the sales charts on a tidal wave of pester power from the nation's seven-year-olds.

In truth, the original Panda did not have much to apologise for. It had modern, appealing styling by Giugiaro and that sense of rightness that only something well designed and basic can convey. Basic was the right word, though; the windscreen was completely flat and it had a single wiper. Rear suspension was by leaf springs and entry-level models had a tiny 650cc two-cylinder engine.

But cars were lighter then, and the Panda had competitors that were also available with small air-cooled twins - for example, Citroën's Visa and LN.

Later petrol models got more up-to-date motive power in the form of the Fire engine. They were joined by a diesel, an automatic and a 4x4 developed by Steyr-Daimler-Puch.

Real pandas are fussy eaters. Their diet consists mainly of hard-to-get bamboo shoots, and their digestive systems mean that even to power their inactive lifestyles, they have to eat vast amounts of them. Fiat's Pandas were efficient at converting fuel into movement and they visited the pumps infrequently.

Throughout its life, the Panda got several improvements, including more sophisticated rear suspension. But if you wanted to capture the rudimentary feel of the original, there was always the Seat Marbella, a licence-built Panda that missed out on the updates, but received an unflattering facelift.

The Panda was withdrawn from most markets several years ago, but production for Italy limped along until 2003, reaching a total of almost 4.5 million. Like its furry namesake, Fiat's Panda seemed to be threatened with extinction. Then, the model name, at least, got a reprieve. Apparently, Renault objected to Gingo, the planned name for Fiat's new small car, on the grounds that it sounded too much like Twingo. The result? Fiat revived the Panda tag. Personally, I think Renault did Fiat a favour. Gingo sounds too much like dingo, an animal we don't find anything near as appealing as the panda. Talk about giving a dog a bad name. Isn't anthropomorphism just so unfair?

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