You wait for ages for a great new small car and, like that other commuting icon, suddenly two turn up at once. The similarities between the Volkswagen Up! and Fiat Panda on the one hand, and
a London bus on the other, end with their excellence at city commuting. Oddly, the Up! and Panda aren't that similar either, despite fighting in the same segment and being of comparable size and price.
The Panda is the third generation of what has been consistently one of the world's finest small utility cars. Pandas have traditionally been demure, no-nonsense vehicles, rather like the bears they're named after. Plus, with only three generations of Panda car in
32 years, they share another characteristic with their bashful four-legged namesakes.
The boxy new Panda is not flash. It is the latest in a long line of great small Fiats — including the original 500, 127 and first Panda — aimed at impecunious and/or unpretentious Italians who live in narrow-street medieval towns or cities and want a small car that can be driven to work, to the shops and, in years gone by, home to the south every summer.
The Panda is that sort of car. It's aimed at sensible-shoe drivers who want value and space efficiency. The new one is the best yet — roomy, comfy, well made. Fun to drive, too, especially with a tuneful two-cylinder Twin Air engine in front of your toes. But, if you want to be flash, choose the mechanically near-identical Fiat 500. Which is a Panda in a pretty dress.
Volkswagen, unlike Fiat, has no heritage in making good baby cars. Previous efforts such as the Lupo and Fox were not big sellers and were merely scaled down Golfs in concept and proportionately scaled down in appeal. The Beetle, on which Volkswagen first built its reputation, was never really small — except in America in the 60s, when 'normal' was a Chevrolet dimensioned more like an aircraft carrier than a European automobile.
The Up! — latest in a long line of dreadful model names from Volkswagen (remember the Sharan?) — is far more impressive than any past baby VW. It plays in more socially elevated circles than the Panda. Indeed, the quality of the cabin is almost to big BMW or Mercedes standard. 'It' girls, not Italian peasants, are the Up!'s likely clientele. Inside, it all feels terribly grown-up. Ride quality, too, is outstanding for so small a car, with little of the pitch and patter that make so many small cheap cars feel small and cheap.
The Up! and Panda are the two most outstanding examples of new baby cars hitting our streets, plugging the growing global demand for smaller, fuel efficient vehicles. Small cars — Fiesta size and below — are the fastest growing sales sector in Britain and Europe (ironically, SUVs are next).
They're blossoming because booming fuel prices encourage scaled-down size. Punitive
car taxation, based on CO2 emissions, does the same. In the Panda/Up! 'mini' class — for very small cars — we see the revised Ford Ka, the Vauxhall Agila, Hyundai i10, Kia Picanto, Toyota Aygo, Citroën C1, Peugeot 107 and Renault Twingo.
Over the past five years the 'mini' segment has more than doubled in the UK. Add bigger 'supermini' cars — such as the Fiesta and Polo — and small cars overall last year accounted for more than 38 per cent of all UK car sales. That's now easily Britain's biggest sector.
Europe-wide, small cars — 'mini' and 'supermini' together — account for 33 per cent of total sales, making them the most popular type of car. Oddly, the Mini no longer competes in the 'mini' class named after it. The current BMW-produced version is too big.
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