Fiat tries to prove there's life in the old dog (panda?) yet, by adding the mild hybrid electric vehicle (MHEV) drivetrain as seen in the 500 Hybrid into the Panda Cross. Does this car convince us more than the 500C did?
In the metal
While we love the eccentric idiosyncrasy of the Fiat Panda City Cross (that means it's the two-wheel-drive version, not the out-and-out 4x4), it can hardly be called a pretty car. The Hybrid First Edition treatment is much as on the 500, so basically Dew Green Paint, a 'Hybrid' badge on the boot and then the bespoke-to-the-First-Edition 'Hybrid' logos on the B-pillars, but once the First Editions have sold out and other colours become available, then spotting a Hybrid model will depend entirely on you clocking the nameplate on the hatch and the part-electric version's particular design of 15-inch alloy wheels with white centre caps.
The interior is more of a leap of faith on the part of potential Panda Cross Hybrid buyers. Fiat has always done an OK job of making what is, at its core, an affordable, fairly primitive dashboard look pretty interesting in the Panda, and the Hybrid - with its matte-green-effect fascia - is certainly not dull and uniform and overwhelmingly plasticky. But no amount of 'squircles' are going to disguise the fact that the Fiat is really showing its age, especially in the department of the digital displays - which here are rendered in those blocky, orange dot-matrix type characters that were looking tired in 2007, never mind 2020. Also, there's a notable dearth of driver assist safety systems in here, one of the reasons the regular Panda has a somewhat terrifying zero-star Euro NCAP safety rating, which it picked up during re-testing in 2018; the Cross, weirdly enough, hangs onto a three-star tag from its 2015 assessment but this is not a cutting-edge supermini by any stretch of the imagination, despite its Hybrid name insinuating as much. Also, rear-seat legroom is 'cosy', and the boot isn't huge, although there's plenty of headroom in the back of the Panda.
At 115mm longer, 35mm wider and 147mm taller, the Panda is a lot bigger than its Fiat 500 cousins and so the same 70hp/92Nm 1.0-litre MHEV drivetrain has more car to deal with. Just like the 500C Hybrid, to get the Panda Hybrid to coast, you need to have the car in neutral and be off the clutch for its engine to die away, and it only seems to do this at about 17km/h and lower, so the actual Hybrid benefits are hard to discern.
Strangely, though, the Panda feels the livelier car of the pair around town. There's a zippiness to it in traffic that is most pleasing - and most at odds with a glacial quoted 0-100km/h time of almost 15 seconds - and you get the same appealing, oddly alluring soundtrack from the 'Firefly' three-cylinder engine as you do in the 500. OK, rev it to the redline and the car feels every bit the kind of machine that will fail to crack 160km/h flat out, but you don't really need rip-snorting performance from a city-biased hybrid like this, so it's not exactly a dealbreaker.
The taller, softer Panda City Cross is not as accurate a car to hustle quickly as the 500 (there's so much body lean, it's untrue), even in town driving (which is exclusively what we did in the Fiat Hybrids), but its suspension is more forgiving and it rides on one-inch-smaller alloy wheels too, while we prefer the action and feel of its six-speed gearbox with the squared-off gear knob to the round item in the 500. Therefore, although the 500 Hybrid is the more chic machine to look at and has the better dashboard design, we'd say the more genial, easy-going Panda Cross Hybrid is the one we'd go for - mainly because it has breathed a bit of life into one of our favourite Fiats, right at the end of the model cycle.
Oh, and it's this hybrid, of all three of the new part-electric Fiats, that gains the most for on-paper eco-stats. Where an old 1.2 Panda would use 5.8 litres/100km (48.7mpg) with 131g/km of CO2 emissions, the Panda Cross Hybrid trims these hugely to 3.9 litres/100km (72.4mpg) with 89g/km of CO2. That's a more than 30 per cent reduction in fuel consumption, although it should be pointed out that the Hybrid's numbers are NEDC-correlated, not pure WLTP.
What you get for your money
We're waiting for prices on this one from Fiat Ireland, although the Hybrid should be a cheap model, thanks to its CO2 and low power outputs. As we've already touched upon, the safety equipment levels of the Fiat Panda are shockingly sparse, but in mitigation the Cross Hybrid seems to have a more generous standard spec (if it carries over to Ireland) than the 500 Hybrid, as it has the same Seaqual recycled-plastic seats, leather steering wheel, LED daytime running lights and Bluetooth capabilities as that car, only it adds automatic air conditioning, DAB radio, rear parking sensors and the Winter Pack (heated front seats and a heated windscreen) too.
Fiat is one of the companies that has taken the longest to arrive at the hybrid party and the Italian outfit finally makes its appearance with a machine that hardly pushes the technological boundaries of what is possible with vehicle electrification. Nevertheless, the Panda has always been a highly likeable run-around and adding this charismatic MHEV drivetrain to the mix hasn't damaged its charm one bit. Pricing will be key and there are more potent mild hybrids than this available elsewhere, but even so the Panda Cross Hybrid is a sign that Fiat is moving in the right, electrified direction.