Michael Booth Discovers the Panda That Roars ; on Wheels

Article excerpt

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). …