In the U.S., it's difficult, if not impossible, to find a car without a miniature television screen placed in the middle of the dash. Even vehicles with relatively clean interiors have that shiny black rectangle begging for attention (I didn't even notice this phenomenon until I stepped behind the wheel of a 2003 BMW recently, noting its uncluttered and car-focused interior).
The lack of a video screen got my attention when checking out the new Fiat Panda Cross while on a trip to Italy this winter. I picked it up at the airport, so it took a bit before I was able to take in its interesting rectangular shape with any level of scrutiny. The first thing I noticed when I climbed inside was simplicity. This, I thought, was truly a back-to-basics car.
Automakers are outdoing other in their attempts to outfit their cars with the largest touchscreens, but I found the Panda's lack of one refreshing. As a matter of fact, the entire experience of driving the 6-speed manual transmission-equipped econobox made me recall the days when I first started driving. Simple, lightweight Japanese economy cars were the cheap ride du jour then. They were uninspiring in the performance department but could be abused for years without fail. Moreover, they were fun – and so is the Panda.
The Cross is the "off-road" version of the Panda, which, although I didn't have a chance to test it out on any gnarly trails, offered increased ground clearance and cool-looking driving lights. Being American, I felt a little silly at first driving around in a bright yellow mini-SUV. But it didn't take long to realize that in Italy, small is good, at least where cars are concerned (Meals are another story). I didn't see too many of the new Pandas in the Tuscan mountain towns I drove through, but the old, boxy Panda 4x4s from the '80s and 90's seemed to be parked next at every farm we passed. Usually, they were spattered with mud.
Sales figures for boxy shaped cars – like the Honda Element and the Nissan Cube – prove the point that America's aren't ready for the square ride. But, man, are they practical. You'd never expect a 12-foot-long car could fit five people and three overstuffed backpacks. But the Panda Cross managed it, and its minscule 85-horsepower engine had enough grunt to get us up and down some pretty steep mountain roads.
The Cross I drove was equipped with the 0.9-liter TwinAir gasoline engine. It sounded like a diesel and it performed like one, too. Passing on the freeway took a little time on uphill grades, but the little TwinAir had sufficient power for me to get a speeding ticket curtesy of a traffic camera posted on the road approaching Venice. With its height, the Panda didn't have a low center of gravity, but that made it even more fun to drive on twisty roads. Consider the old adage: it's better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.
Unfortunately, driving a slow car fast killed what should have been killer fuel economy. It's supposed to get 47 miles per gallon, but according to my calculations, my highway fuel economy was closer to 30. So much for lead foot hypermiling.
The Panda's interior was utilitarian – something for an Italian police detective or a small-parish priest. Everything severed a purpose. The seats were spartan and tautly upholstered. The dash was smooth and unadorned. The rear windows didn't even have power switches – they had old-fashioned cranks! – athough the front ones did. Luckily, the electric door locks were not similarly situated.
It's unlikely that something so small and practical would ever sell well in the U.S. When Americans do want small cars, they want ones with sex appeal, like the Mini Cooper or the Fiat 500 (which shares a platform with the Panda). But there's a lot to learn from the Panda. For one thing, it's that good things do come in small packages – and are easier to park. For another, it's that the box shape works well from a practical standpoint. But these lessons, taught by teachers like the Element and the Cube, have already fallen on deaf ears. Cute and practical will never supplant power and style in the American psyche.
By the numbers: 2016 Fiat Panda Cross
MSRP: 20,300 Euro ($22,113, estimated price as tested, not including destination charge)
Power and drive wheels: 0.9-liter, 85-horsepower (78-hp in Eco mode) 4-cylinder; electronic four-wheel drive
Transmission: 6-speed manual
EPA fuel economy: 47 mpg (US, estimated)
In showrooms: Now, if you're in Italy