Over the last two weeks 6-foot motoring journalist Gavin Williams has been hopping in and out of two of Italian giant Fiat’s smaller cars.

With the World Cup in full swing again, I was reminded of when South Korea dumped Italy out of the tournament in 2002. The Korean who slotted the winner played his club football in Italy for Perugia. In response the chairman of that club tore up Ahn Jung-Hwan’s contract on TV because, “He has killed Italian football” and was obviously not welcome back. I like that about Italians. They don’t always think things through properly, but have a knack of making things very memorable indeed. In the same way when they get their cars right – often despite some confounding leaps in logic – they’re great.

Over the last two weeks I have been hopping in and out of two of Italian giant FIAT’s smaller cars, the 500L (which is a bigger version of the smaller 500 which makes it slightly bigger but still small) and the diminutive Panda. The thing with small Fiats -as anyone who talks too much about cars will tell you- is they just love to be revved. The closer your needle is to that red line, the more a loopy grin is plastered onto your face. There’s something so endearing about the buzz and thrum of the engines (and even a delightful hint of a snarl from the little 51kW 1.2 engine in the Panda) that you always feel like you’re going faster than you are. When I discovered the Panda only gets to 100 in 14.2 seconds I was as stunned as the whole of Italy when that Costa Rican nodded one in at the far post.

PANDA 1.2 POP

James May has/had one of these for the exact reason I described above, it revs like mad and just feels fun. Not, I assume, for the reason Fiat have up on their website which I have a feeling was directly translated from Italian using babelfish.com or something:

“The Panda is a sincere car: it loves the environment, and is happy to prove it. That’s why it has an engine with low fuel consumption and respect for the environment.”

I suppose you can’t tell people to rev it like a blender with a stubborn piece of mango wedged in the blades to get maximum enjoyment out of the crazy little thing. You can however tell them it has up to 870 litres of boot space which is extraordinary and is probably why brochures often show a couple out buying antiques in the country or in Fiat’s case some madman stowing an outboard motor indoors on this 80s version of the Panda. Ah, the Italians, gotta love them.

fiat panda

Sometime in 1987, this happened.

Inside it’s got a hint of the quirkiness I expect from Italian design, but not enough of it which might be a selling point for some. Everything is clearly laid out and Fiat make a big deal of being able to adjust the angle of the headlights. Many vendettas must have begun on quiet Italian country roads after an accidental blinding of someone coming in the opposite direction. The sound system is great and plugs straight into your device of preference via a USB port which these days is like saying “the car has 4 wheels”.

The bottom line is this car is instantly likeable and immensely endearing in its over-caffeinated Italianess. As the website clumsily points out it is also stupendously efficient sipping only 5.2 litres per 100kms (if you don’t drive it as I suggested above -it has a light that pops on to remind you to change up to save juice). It’s not as docile as a Panda, probably produces fewer emissions than one and is just as cuddly and loveable. And its all yours from R152 990.

NOTE: If you’re over 6 foot like I am and have friends who are too, don’t put them all in the car, you look like you’re on the way to a clown convention. Remember this was designed for Italians who tend to be smaller.

car

The Panda scoffs at the shoddy workmanship of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

500L 1.6MTL DIESEL

What the L stands for I’m not quite sure. Long? Lounge? Luxury? Lazio? Life Partner? Whatever it means, all you need to know is that this is the 4-door Fiat 500.

Now here’s a conundrum. As I mentioned above, little Fiats like to be given a good thrashing, but the first 500L I drove was their 1.6l diesel, which revs far lower than petrol variant. So the sensation of driving a small Fiat was somewhat nullified, because it didn’t feel like something was about to make a bid for freedom from the engine bay. I drove the petrol as well, and that’s the one I’d have I think, although there’s nothing wrong with the diesel if you drive like a normal person.

Looks-wise, I’m not entirely sold, mainly because the 500 is just adorable, there’s no other word for it. The guys at Fiat will have us believe that “Growing up is cool” to justify the existence of this plumper 4-door version of the 500, a car as entrenched into the Italian psyche as mistresses and revenge.

The smaller 500 is obviously a bit more fun to drive, purely because of its size although this has its moments too, but the real fun starts inside. Remember that this is the company responsible for the “challengingly styled” Fiat Multipla, which outside looked like logic made sex to a frog, but was bristling with cool practicality inside. The 500L is no different, it has tons of space inside and the full glass roof just adds to the feeling of light and openness. There are also 22 storage compartments for just about every unnecessary item our modern life demands that we have, and I like that. There’s something comforting about everything having a place whether it’s a big flask of coffee, a laptop or a lamp. The touch screen infotainment setup is also intuitive and the sound is courtesy of Beats by Dr. Dre, although I am sure he is unaware that cars this small even exist.

Driving in an Italian city is the equivalent of driving inside a pinball machine, except it’s louder, so Fiat have a system (on both the the Panda and 500L) called City mode which lightens the steering incredibly allowing you to take gaps and park with one finger while simultaneously shouting into your cellphone, using your other finger to show your disappointment towards a fellow motorist, expressing your approval of a woman’s looks and drinking a coffee. Not that we’d condone that sort of thing, but it’s what driving in Rome is all about.

It’s always going to be slightly less cool than the little 500, but for practicality with a dollop of Fiat quirkiness and all round good value, you could do a lot worse than this.

One is yours for anything between R212 711 and R262 711.

car girl

She can answer any questions you have about Fiat’s second generation MultiJet engines.