For the Mallorca meet I booked a car from one of the less reputable companies. Seriously, the if their reviews were for a restaurant you’d steer well clear, assuming that what appeared to be a nice Steak was in fact a piece of old donkey. And the waiter would throw it at you. And charge you extra for the fork.
With that in mind I picked the super-duper “bring it back on it’s roof with three wheels and we’ll just shrug” insurance coverage. All for a grand total of €105 for five days. This rental company was touting it’s modern service, with the possibility to pick the keys up from a vending machine. No need to go to the desk and fill in endless reams of paperwork, which give them the rights to your firstborn and left kidney. Just scan a code on your phone and be away in seconds.
The process was claimed to be very simple, just take a photo of your ID and license beforehand and present a QR code at the machine. The first part was made more difficult by the capture website being absolutely hopeless, with most of the information being off screen. Eventually it accepted my brexitland Passport and driving licence, and all was set.
On arrival, I headed to the vending machine, only to be told to bugger off as I was too early. Fair enough, Palma airport was a ghost town, so I got through much quicker than expected.
After hanging around for a bit under the watchful eye of the Very Bored Looking Rental Desk Assistant I make another attempt.
“Bzzzzt” the machine goes.
Try again, same result.
“Talk to the human, cos the machine ain’t listening.””
I walk the 10 paces to the VBLRDA, and explain that I can’t get the keys.
“Hmmm” Much checking of documents and hand written paperwork -all bookings for the vending machine appear to be written down on paper. I imagine this is very efficient when it’s busy.
“Oh, I need to get my colleague, I don’t know much about the machines”
VBLRDA calls her colleague.
“Yes, she’ll be just a minute’
The colleague shows up, after apparently commuting from the north side of the island.
We repeat the process. Computer says no. Check documents. Much typing. Much frowning.
“Oh yes, it thought your driving licence had expired. In 1960”
The wonders of OCR.
By this time some stereotypical American tourists had shown up for VBLRDA, and appeared to be surprised that a car rental desk had cars you could rent. VBLRDA’s helpful nature seemed to evaporate, as did her previously impeccable English.
VBLRDA, I feel for you. Stuck in PMI, which I can only imagine was fairly recently hell on Earth. Now a barren wasteland of empty corridors and building work. Watching the other travelers walk by, scared away by the 1.7 star google score. Staring out all day at the machines that will eventually take over your job, dealing with the customers that really have no clue.
After the faff I got to choosing my car. Ooh a choice. I wonder what choice there will be in the cheapskate category. Maybe Even an upgrade! Well there was a choice. Of two. Of the same car.
On a complete whim I chose the one with the less KM on it. Only by 1000, but it would somehow be newer. After some whirring from the machine I was presented with the keys for:
A Fiat Panda! In a delightful shade of metallic boring. It was the lounge model, so mid spec. Still on steelies (possibly a local variant, the UK model is on 15" alloys), but with such luxuries as AC - a necessity in a location where it’s 25c in November - the aforementioned metallic Shiny Fog paint and upgraded head unit. It does bluetooth. No Carplay or Android Auto, so it won’t read out messages in a slightly odd accent.
First impressions were of immense cheapness. After all, this is a car that has a current new selling price of around €8000. If you’re a car rental company buying them by the boatload I imagine they must cost about the same as dryer lint. There are exactly zero soft touch plastics in the cabin. As I’ve never owned a car with soft touch plastics, this wasn’t something I regard as a problem. The carpet looks like it was formerly used a removals blanket, the edges of the plastic parts are quite unfinished, with some quite sharp edges in places. The steering wheel is covered in something claims to be leather, but only from the very poorest grade of cow. I think the manual mirror adjusters came from a 1985 Uno.
Looking around it was actually in a reasonable condition, with just a few light scratches. After any time spent on the roads around the island this is a highly unusual condition for a car to be in. Most of the rental cars have scrapes and witness marks from rocks, cyclists and other rental cars. The local cars look like they’ve spent 20 years banger racing, with no undamaged panels to be found.
Setting off revealed comically light steering, which was down to the city steering being on. This is a Fiat hallmark, I guess they thought that just having electric steering assistance was too simple. With that turned off, the steering is nicely weighted, but has zero feel or feedback. With the skinny and high profile 14” tyres, this leaves handling best described as vague and a bit wobbly. This is exacerbated by the tall and narrow frame and the soft suspension. It’s not quite 2CV levels of comedy body roll, but a tight roundabout makes the feeling of falling over a distinct possibility.
It’s more of an issue when you’re trying to make progress, which does require commitment. The Panda is available with the quite clever and amusing 2 cylinder TwinAir engine. That gives you a turbo, 85hp, and a claimed 67mpg that you will never, ever, be able to achieve. Sadly the 100hp Panda of the last generation didn’t get a reprieve for the third generation, with Fiat focusing on the 500 as their ‘fun’ car. That does mean that any of the Abarth engines should drop straight in, which would make an excellent sleeper.
This Panda (as with the majority of them, together with the other 500s on the trip) was fitted with the 1.2 FIRE engine, dating back to the mid 80s. It’s been used in all three generations of Panda, in the first generation it came with carbs! It’s not particularly refined or economic, which must mean it’s a FIREbreathing monster, right?
Well, don’t get your hopes up. It puts out 69hp, with a whole 102nm/75ft-lbs of torque. The Panda is not super light either, at a quoted kerb weight of 940kg.
Yes, it’s slow. Not quite as bad as when this engine was fitted in the Doblo (the previous generation pro master city), which for some time held the record as the slowest car on sale, at a leisurely 0-60 time of 21 seconds. Thankfully the Panda is a bit more sprightly with a 0-60 time of 14.3 seconds. Yes, you can laugh. For most people actually buying one that’s probably of little relevance. It’s more than fast enough to keep up with the generally ponderous speeds of other drivers.
For the first day or so it felt exceptionally slow and not very happy about being driven hard. This did improve over the trip- I guess the Italian Tune Up really does work! It’s still very slow, but with some encouragement it can make progress. The wobbly handling is the biggest downfall in the twisties, on the highway it’s actually reasonably composed. It’s blown about a lot and there’s a fair amount of wind noise at higher speeds but it’s a sign of how much progress in NVH that’s been made in the last 15 years or so. It’s reasonably capable at keeping up with the usual motorway speeds, but does require downshifts to maintain speed on a slight hill. Top speed is a quoted 102MPH. There’s a bit of vibration when you get up towards that sort of speed, but it’s really not intended to do that sort of thing.
The ‘power’ is delivered through a five speed gearbox, which like the engine probably dates back a few decades. The change is nice, through a stubby dash mounted gear lever, with an oddly cuboid knob. There’s an annoying gap in the ratios between first and second, which on the hairpins presents a challenge. The box on this car was making some interesting noises in the lower gears, and a particularly odd noise in reverse. The kind of noise that would be the sign of an impending gearbox rebuild. As a reminder, this car had less than 10,000km on it.
Controls in general are fine. The clutch is a cable type and took a little getting used to, if anything a bit too light. The accelerator may as well be an on/off switch with 69hp. For much of this trip it was full throttle in second kind of driving. Travel was nice, and the response was very good. As a NA engine, there was none of the slight lagginess that can be found with a turbo setup.
The brakes were really quite good. With less than a ton to stop they are suitably tiny, and as an economy car it’s disks up front and drums at the rear. Even with long periods of driving like a complete bellend, there was no real fading and it can stop quickly. Compared to the GLA as the last rental car I had on one of these trips which suffered from fade after a short section of the Stelvio pass it was really quite surprising.
Pushing on through the tight hairpins of the early part of the trip revealed a couple of things. The first was wheel spin in first wheel pulling away at any speed, the second was that on a really narrow tight road it’s reasonably fun. Pile into a hairpin bend, sling it around and stand on the throttle until the next one. You’ll be waiting a while as this is all happening at well below 40mph The narrow width was a great advantage when getting past cyclists or with the generic crossovers squeezing you off the road.
Where it started to fall apart was on the last day where we found some faster, still curvy roads. Understeer raises it’s ugly head, with the skinny tyres struggling to keep it on track. The fitment on this car is a 145/65/14, which isn’t a recipe to outright grip or handling. The 500s on the trip were wearing wider and lower profile shoes, and seems to be able to dart around at speeds the poor Panda wasn’t really happy with.
Comfort wise it’s passable. The seats aren’t very well bolstered, which means adopting an interesting bracing position by wedging one knee on the shift column and one on the drivers door to minimise sliding about during enthusiastic driving. Roads in Mallorca are pretty smooth, so I don’t know what it would be like over the cratered roads of the rural UK, but it seems well damped and could cope with a few potholes.
In terms of practicality, there’s five doors and a reasonable sized boot. I didn’t hear any complaints from the rear seat passenger on the Pizza run, so legroom must have been fine. Or agonizing. It fitted all our recyling in for a trip of futility to dispose of it. Despite appearances it does have a glove box, which is big enough for things. The cupholders are rubbish, they’ll hold a 500ml bottle of water. Until a hairpin.
Overall, it’s fine. Reasonably sized, and well priced. Not super engaging to drive, but then it’s not supposed to be. It’s cheap basic transport that serves a purpose. I was expecting a bit more character, In theory it should be durable, with not many features to go wrong and a drivetrain that’s well proven. That said the noisy gearbox isn’t exactly confidence inspiring.
In comparison to it’s competitors it’s a bit nicer than the C1/108/Aygo triplets, but the PSA 1.2l is a bit more willing than the Panda’s and is a more modern turbo affair. Absolutely terrible gear shift in those, and the cabin feels even cheaper. The logical choice is the VW Up, (Or the Citigo if you really are that sensible).
If you are in the Balearics, then just get the 500C like everyone else.