Would suit: Teenage speed freaks
Maximum speed: 115mph, 0-62mph in 9.5 seconds
Combined fuel economy: 43.4mpg
Further information: 00800 3428 000
A Fiat Panda saved my life. It didn't provide miraculous protection in a terrible crash, or gently nudge a pair of armed robbers into a pond, Herbie-style. Its role in revolutionising your Sunday-morning reading pleasure was more passive than that: I learned to drive in a Fiat Panda, one of the original ones designed in 1980, by Giorgetto Giugiaro, to meet the same needs as the 2CV had done 30 years earlier.
My learner Panda - my mother's car - had about the same amount of power as a hand-held vacuum cleaner. Sometimes it seemed as if the scenery was moving faster than we were, and often I suffered the indignity of being out-dragged from the lights by invalid cars. But it was all I had so, for over a year, this tin hut on wheels had to fulfil all my flat-out motoring fantasies.
These alternated between a) the very bumpy, undulating stretch of road from Burgess Hill to Keymer was the final stage in the RAC Rally and I, the plucky Brit rookie with the broken arm and Suzi Quatro as his co-driver, had Hannu Mikkola breathing down my exhaust, and b) as Roger Moore, I had commandeered the Panda from a local farmer (left holding my safari jacket, open mouthed in the dust as I accelerated away), and was being chased by a man with three nipples in a rocket-firing helicopter.
This meant that, most of the time, I drove with my right leg braced against the front bulkhead but, thankfully, the Panda rarely troubled the national speed limit, and ran out of puff altogether on steep inclines.
But had my mother owned one of the new 100HP Pandas, I would almost certainly now be a long- forgotten makeshift shrine beside the forested switchback just south of Pease Pottage, on the M23. This is Fiat's frisky new version of the Panda, with a cheeky body kit of side skirts, black wheel-arch trims, 15-inch wheels and a fake rear diffuser (a hilarious thing to attach to a Fiat Panda, like fitting a fake nuclear warhead to a Cessna).
It certainly feels a good deal faster - and heaps more fun - than the standard car, thanks to a 1.4-litre engine; a sharper throttle; much harder, lower suspension; and noisier exhaust. Instead of the normal car's Park Assist button to lighten the steering, this one has a Sport button that lessens assistance by 20 per cent to give you a better feel for what the front wheels are up to at speed. You can barrel along at what, again, feels like quite a rate, enjoying the close-ratios and slick action of the six-speed gear box.
The interior boasts a leather-trimmed steering wheel and slightly more grippy seats, but there are still some traces of the original in this new Panda. The boxiness is still there; you sit fairly high up; and it has lots of glass. When 2CVs were decommissioned, the owners often used them as chicken coops, but I always suspected that Pandas were designed to end their days as a cold frame for tomatoes.
You might think that few Panda 100HPs will ever make it to such a dotage, but the truth - belied by a Group five insurance rating - is that this is still no death-wish, Renault Clio Sport killer. The best thing of all about the 100HP is that it makes you feel you are flying when, to the rest of the world, it looks like you are simply pottering. So it's perfect, then, for teenage kicks without the calamities. s
It's a classic: Fiat Nuova 500
One of the Panda's ancestors is this car, Italy's answer to the Mini: the Fiat 500. At least, it would have been Italy's answer except that it predates the Mini by two years, having been launched in 1957. With its astonishingly economical, air-cooled engine (53mpg beats its modern-day counterpart into a cocked hat), Mini-rivaling space and unbearably cute looks, the 500 was one of the 20th century's milestone cars. Rear-engined, and rear-wheel drive, in its original incarnation it offered just 18bhp, but that was enough to propel it to a creditable 61mph. That said, drive one today and you will be astounded at the progress we have made over the last half century. They are slow, rough, noisy and uncomfortable. Never mind, this remains one of the most endearing cars ever made. The 500 remained in production until 1975 with an estate version, and even one with the bodywork made from wicker - called the Ghia Jolly - now highly collectible.