The Fiat Panda re-defined the city car genre when it was launched in 1980, offering unparalleled versatility and interior space in a compact, manoeuvrable and affordable package.
The second generation model, launched in 2003, refined and modernised those characteristics with remarkable success, consistently topping the segment sales charts since. And now, some 6.4 million units later, a new chapter begins with the third-generation Fiat Panda.
Slightly longer, taller and wider than the model it replaces, the Panda has grown to improve safety standards and boost interior space, while the exterior design has evolved to combine the most distinctive elements of the outgoing Panda with softer edges, bolder detailing and stronger visual links to the rest of the Fiat range.
Designers working on the interior have also drawn inspiration from previous Panda models. The wraparound dashboard "shell", the large storage shelf and the slender seat backrests all hark back to the original model, while the high-mounted gear-lever, commanding driving position and general easy-to-use cabin layout ensure drivers of the current Panda will also feel right at home.
Having said that, the overall cabin design is completely fresh with a modern, upscale look and pain-staking attention to detail, right down to the new, space-saving handbrake lever and the interwoven Panda logo moulded into the cabin plastics. The steering wheel, instruments, audio systems and switches are also new and all share the unique Squircle (ie, rounded-square ) motif of the exterior.
As with the current Panda, the rear seats split, fold and (in four-seat versions ) slide back and forth to generate extra passenger space or luggage room as required, while the front passenger seat backrest is now available with fold-flat function, transforming into a useful table and helping the Panda accommodate loads of more than 2m in length.
Special attention has also been paid to the materials, solidity and overall finish of the new Fiat Panda's cabin which have been improved greatly thanks to the advanced manufacturing and quality-control techniques at the revamped Pomigliano factory.
The Fiat Panda also benefits from the addition of the Overall International Engine of the Year, the two-cylinder TwinAir engines, which now features second-generation MultiAir II electro-hydraulic valve actuation, which improves CO2 emissions by three percent compared to the original MultiAir system which was itself a giant leap forward for petrol induction systems.
In addition to the 85hp TwinAir turbo, familiar to Fiat 500 TwinAir drivers, a new 65bhp, normally-aspirated version of the "2011 International Engine of the Year" also debuts in the Panda, while the familiar 69hp 1.2-litre FIRE engine and 75hp 1.3-litre MultiJet II diesel engine round out the engine range.
For improved efficiency, a gear shift indicator and start and stop system are both standard on all models and a new, cap-free Smartfuel filling nozzle also debuts on the 2012 Fiat Panda.
Fiat claims the driving dynamics of the new Panda have evolved, too. Thanks to its advanced construction using a variety of lightweight and ultra-strong materials, the Fiat Panda's overall torsional rigidity is improved by five per cent compared to the current car.
Because of these enhancements, Fiat promises the new Panda exhibits significantly lower levels of wind, road and engine noise; a 50 per cent decrease in unwanted steering vibrations; a 35 per cent lower rate of body roll and a 20 per cent reduction in understeer (measured in terms of lateral G versus steering angle ). An advanced 4x4 system, fully integrated into the Panda's ESP system, is also in development and is scheduled for launch in the autumn.
Three trim levels will be available - Pop, Easy and Lounge - and all models will have four airbags, ABS with brake-assist, Isofix, anti-whiplash headrests and daytime running lights as standard.
As with all new Fiat Group products, a special dashboard dock is available at a minimal cost which accepts Blue&Me TomTom2 satnav systems, with integrated voice- or touchscreen-controlled MP3/iPod and mobile phone control. Available from any Fiat dealership, the system includes a one-year TomTom Live subscription offering drivers real-time traffic updates (fully functional in Ireland ) and an integrated Google search function capable of pinpointing the precise location of a business or point-of-interest quickly and accurately even if the user does not have the address.
The first Fiat Panda models arrive in Ireland in late February/early March, and pricing and final specification will be announced closer to that time.