Fiat presented the new Panda to a bunch of motoring scribes at the Pinewood film studios just outside London - most famous, perhaps, as the location for shooting of the James Bond films. While the Panda proved to have no Bond-style fancy gadgets it had plenty to hold the attention, because it proved once again that Fiat are the masters of making small cars.
That reputation was built on the pre-war Fiat 500, designed by the brilliant Dante Giacosa and known to all as the Topolino or ‘little mouse'. Then, in the 1960s, the jelly-mould Nuova 500 was the Italian answer to the Mini, providing mass transport at relatively low cost.
In the 1970s small Fiats became more sophisticated, and the front-drive saloon 128 and hatchback 127 proved incredibly popular. But there was always room for a machine which could provide simple, low-cost mobility and Fiat provided it with the original Panda.
Today’s Panda is a more sophisticated machine, a city car for a new millennium. At launch there's just the one bodystyle, an upright five-door hatchback, and a limited choice of engines. Early Panda buyers can choose from two small petrol engines, 1.1-litre and 1.2-litre, which have surprisingly little difference in power or performance between them - so I'd be inclined to save a few quid and opt for the 1.1.
The excellent Fiat Multijet diesel will soon be added to the range. There’s also talk that the five-door Panda will mutate into a three-door before long.
The Panda fulfills its brief incredibly well. It’s no performance car, of course, but it is fun to punt down a twisty road, with a confidence-inspiring grip despite its narrow tyres. It soaks up bumps with aplomb, too. Add a high-quality interior, for the price and market sector, and you have a strong contender in the city car sector.