The Fiat Panda has been named Europe's "Car of the Year 2004". The little Fiat beat rivals such as the Mazda3, Volkswagen Golf V, Opel Meriva, BMW 5 Series and the Nissan Micra for the title.

The Fiat Panda has been named Europe's "Car of the Year 2004". The little Fiat beat rivals such as the Mazda3, Volkswagen Golf V, Opel Meriva, BMW 5 Series and the Nissan Micra for the title.


The "Car of the Year" jury comprised 58 trade journalists, representing 22 European countries. The jury also voted the Panda into the history books - it was the first time that a segment model had won the accolade.


The Fiat Panda came in first with 281 votes, ahead of the Mazda3 (241), Golf V (241), Toyota Avensis (219), Meriva (213), 5 Series (144) and Micra (111).


As well as being the overall winner of 'Car of the Year 2004', the ultra-compact Fiat was also the car which got votes from the most members of the jury: 55 out of 58 of them included the Panda in their nominations, while 16 rated it top.


Earlier this year, a CAR correspondent found that the Panda's squarish lines and SUV detailing set it apart from rival small cars. One of the most distinctive aspects is the side window line, which softly tapers downwards, until it meets the rear side quarterlights, and suddenly squares off.


The rear end is stubby, perhaps to the extent that it impinges on luggage space, but the result is a pleasingly cute little car. The facia is attractive, yet still very MPV-ish. There's a tall hangdown section neatly housing the radio, ventilation controls, electric window buttons etc.


Fiat offers buyers three rear seat options. You can have either a rear bench seat with a folding backrest, or a bench seat with a split folding backrest, or finally, the bench rear seat with folding and tilting backrests. When the car is equipped with the sliding rear seats, luggage space can be improved from a dinky 206 dm³ to a still not-too-impressive 236 dm³.


In European markets the Panda is available in four specification levels: Actual, Active, Dynamic and Emotion. The Actual can be identified via its black bumpers and, at first glance, rather spartan trim levels. It gets a driver's airbag, tinted windows, heated rear window - and rear wiper.


The Active adds different wheels, liners on the door pillars, and a passenger-mirror. It starts getting better from the Dynamic level, which adds special trim, tinted windows and grille, ABS, Dualdrive power steering, central locking and twin front airbags.


The Dynamic specification offers three packs: radio CD player, steering wheel controls, hi-fi with subwoofer, foglights and electric mirrors (Hi-Fi pack); manual climate control system and courtesy mirror on the driver's side (CLASS pack); Skydome electric sunroof, foglight and courtesy mirror on the driver's side (SKY pack).


Emotion spec offers cloth seats, alloy wheels, roof bars, black side strips, automatic climate control, radio/CD player, electric door mirrors, height-adjustable front seat and remote central locking.


At the recent European launch, the Panda was offered with a choice of three engines. A five-speed manual gearbox was standard, while the Dualogic sequential automatic gearbox was an option on the 1,2-litre model.


But the engine that Fiat is most eager to talk about is the advanced 1,3-litre turbodiesel Multijet engine that features second-generation common rail technology. With all its accessories plugged in, it still weighs less than 130 kg, and measures ju s t 50 cm in length and 65 cm in height. Power output is 51 kW at 4 000 r/min and 145 N.m of torque comes on steam at a low 1 500. Fiat practically guarantees that this engine will last for life, claiming that it does not require any maintenance to mechanical parts (not even the fan belt needs to be changed at 80 000 km, as is the norm). Oil change intervals have been set at 30 000 km, but we doubt whether this will happen in South Africa.


Next year Fiat will add a small SUV variant, and even more derivatives are promised. Whether it will be the saviour of Italy's embattled Fiat Auto, however, remains to be seen. The Panda could be released in South Africa around mid-2004, most likely with all three engines on offer, but perhaps only with the higher spec levels.


The "Car of the Year" award ceremony, organised by the French magazine 'L'Automobile Magazine', will take place in Paris on January 19 2004.


The Car of the Year award was launched in 1964. In order to be admitted to the competition the new cars must have been marketed i n at least five different European countries in the course of the year. Then the following parameters are assessed: design, comfort, safety, fuel economy, driveability, performance, practicality, respect for the environment and price and value for money.