Road Test: Panda 100 HP: Panda learns to growl

Just press the Sport switch and Fiat's traditionally docile mini-hatch becomes a different kind of beast. John Simister is impressed by an overdue makeover

Price: £9,995. On sale December
Engine: 1,368cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 100bhp at 6,000rpm, 97lb ft at 4,250rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 115mph, 0-62 in 9.5sec, 43.5mpg official average
CO2: 154g/km

Fiat's Panda is a cleverly designed little car, a kind of automotive blank canvas. Its square-cut, big-windowed lines can give it the persona of a mini-MPV, or, if you add chunky wheels and attitude (plus a suitable transmission system), it becomes a credible 4x4 than which there is none less planet-damaging. But a hot hatchback? Come on, do me a favour.

But wait. Let's try an aggressive-looking face, perhaps inspired by a current Audi. Let's add black wheelarch lips and toughened-up sills, framing fat little wheels wrapped in low-profile 195/45 R15 tyres. Give it a blade-like spoiler above the tailgate, black out the rear-side and rear windows to give it the look of a coupé. A coupé that's a Panda? Strange, but possibly true. Inside, make the decor dark and the seats more laterally supportive, cover the steering wheel's rim in leather and sparkle up the dashboard with some chrome detailing.

Right, so the Panda has been visually sportified. But surely no one is credibly suggesting that the new Panda 100 HP is anything but a cosmetic makeover. There again, that 100 HP sounds promising. Yes, this Panda does indeed have a 100bhp engine, a 1.4-litre unit matched to a six-speed gearbox. Prepare to be amazed.

Actually, I had an idea of what was coming. A couple of years ago I drove a prototype Panda at Fiat's Balocco test track between Turin and Milan, fitted with the 90bhp, 1.4-litre engine from the then-current Punto Sporting. This notional Panda Sporting had low, stiff suspension, no front anti-roll bar and an exhaust note perfectly suited to a Saturday night cruise up the high street. It was great fun. Since then we've waited. And waited.

We need wait no more. The Panda 100 HP is that car but made better. The engine has more power (and 5bhp more than the Grande Punto Sporting from which it is taken), and the suspension is more sophisticated. The anti-roll bar returns, the springs' stiffness is less savage (although still 25 per cent greater than a standard Panda's, along with a 25mm drop in ride height), the brakes are discs all round and there's a philosophical rethink of the electric power steering.

I don't mean you steer right to make the Panda go left, or anything like that (I did once drive an Audi so converted as an interesting exercise in driver coordination, and it was almost impossible) but that the regular Panda's City switch is replaced by a Sport switch. Normally you press the button to make the steering lighter at low speeds, but now you press it to make the steering feel up to 20 per cent heavier and more convincingly connected. The difference lessens as speed rises, as does the concurrent increased sensitivity of the accelerator pedal.

Another electronic recalibration is that of the ESP (electronic stability programme) system, although you still can't turn it off. Isn't that a nuisance in a sporty car? After all, you could still leave some non-switchable last-gasp functionality in there, like a Golf GTI has, designed to intervene when all is looking frictionally hopeless. But that's too risky, says the Panda's engineering chief, Lorenzo Baroso.

"Remember that we're aiming this car at young buyers," he continues. "We wanted to create a sporty but safe and stable car, and we wanted to create the highest effect with the lowest changes in hardware." Those young buyers will be pleased with two of the Panda 100 HP's strongest selling points: a £9,995 list price and group five insurance.

The stage is set, then, for the return of the truly engaging small, hot Fiat in the style of those fizzy little 127s and 128s of the Seventies. It has all been a bit half-hearted since then, apart from the entertaining but wayward Uno Turbo, so there's catching up to do. True, 100bhp isn't a huge amount of power, but it's only 5bhp shy of that Uno's figure and by today's standards the Panda is a flyweight at just 975kg.

I drive off to the happy snort of a vocal induction system, so the 100 HP sounds like a proper souped-up small Fiat from the inside, even if the enlarged exhaust pipe's vocal emissions are discreet. The accelerator response is very keen, especially with the "sport" button pressed, and the engine pulls evenly right across the speed range to its 7,000rpm limit. With that, plus those six closely stacked forward gears to choose from, the 100 HP is always pulling well. The outright performance figures might not be startling - 0-62mph in 9.5 seconds and a 115mph top speed - but the pace is easy to exploit and those figures help to keep the insurance bill down.

Anyway, pace isn't everything. How a car copes with bends and bumps is probably more important and here, unlike most recent sporty Fiats, including the lacklustre Seicento Sporting, the Panda is terrific. A regular Panda takes corners at its own pace, lolloping happily along and leaning over like something old and French. It's all good fun but hardly the epitome of honed dynamic efficiency. But the 100 HP is as different as it could reasonably be.

Turn into a bend and the front wheels bite precisely into the road, following whatever course you ask of them and feeding the result right back through the steering. The body stays near-flat even as you flick from one direction to the other, and if you're too fast into a bend you just ease off and the line tightens obligingly. It's foolproof and it's fun. You do need to turn the "acceleration skid reduction" (that is, traction) control off, though, or else you'll too often feel your progress interrupted as you accelerate out of a corner. It's a shame it intervenes so much, because the Panda's traction is very good.

And the ESP? It makes the 100 HP a little less fun for the skilled driver, but its presence is reassuring. You can feel it working quite clearly if you turn too hard and too late, with individual wheels braking to nudge the Panda on to the required course and preventing the tail from sliding out. So it's taut, driver-rewarding entertainment with no frights, and matched to enough suspension suppleness to let the Panda match your mood when you're tired of playing.

So much fun for so little money is a minor miracle, I think, and one matched only by the now-ageing Ford Sportka. You also get air conditioning, a CD player, electric windows and central locking, which are all the gadgets I really want. All for £9,995, with 43.5mpg and 154g/km of CO2 to aid your smugness. Suddenly, anything grander seems hard to justify.

The rivals

Suzuki Swift Sport, £11,499

Capable and good-looking Swift spawns this equally promising warmed-over version, with pleasing handling and peppy pace from its twin-cam, 125bhp 1.6 engine.

Citroën C2 VTR Sensodrive, £11,395

Cute-looking C2 hasn't sold as well as expected, but this 110bhp, 1.6-litre version is good fun if you don't mind the mandatory paddle-shift gearbox.

Ford Sportka SE, £9,995

This wonderfully entertaining small car hides its years well, has 95bhp from its simple single-cam, 1.6-litre engine. Next-generation Ka will be built on Panda platform.

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