As of this January 2024 writing, you can still walk into a Fiat dealership and drive out in a brand new combustion-powered (albeit hybridised) Fiat 500, a car that has been on sale since 2007. That makes it comfortably one of the oldest cars around, but the platform it sits on is even older.
That’s because it shares its underpinnings with the 169-generation Fiat Panda, which debuted in 2003, so your brand new Fiat 500 has more than a little 20-year-old engineering underneath it. The thing is, people still buy 500s in sizeable volumes across Europe, a mark not just of a lingering desire for something stylish and affordable (as the city car market slowly dries up around it), but of the effort Fiat put into making one of its best-ever small cars, Panda included.
But which is most covetable of all? The easy answer would be one of the Abarth-branded 500s, but I think the honour should actually go to the Fiat Panda 100HP, which arrived in late 2006, a year before the 500 hit the streets.
The 100HP isn’t some forgotten gem, some overlooked and underappreciated model overshadowed by other greats in Fiat’s lineage. Go to any Italian car show and you’re liable to see half a dozen of the things at least.
Rarely, though, has Fiat gotten a car so brilliantly right. The Panda 100HP was more than just a brisk version of an already-great city car; it was a vibrant bath-bomb of a car, fizzing with energy the moment you started it until the moment you switched it off. And it was priced so that regular people could afford it.
That price was £9995 at launch, equivalent to around £16,500 today. It goes without saying there’s nothing even slightly comparable today that’s quite as affordable – Hyundai’s i10 N Line with its turbocharged 1-litre engine and Panda-matching 100PS output is closest, but it will set you back more than £18,000.
And frankly, the little Hyundai is no match for the Panda on looks. It was impressive how Fiat managed to turn the handsome Panda hatchback into both a convincing hot hatchback and a 4×4 by changing only a few plastic parts, some wheels, and adjusting the ride height, but the 100HP has to be one of the more pleasing hot-hatch shapes of the 2000s.
The Audi-like single-frame grille is arguably better on the Panda than it was on Audis, flanked by foglights and matched at the rear by a diffuser-like element, while the slightly dished 15-inch alloys looked absolutely perfect, squeezed by a 25mm drop in ride height and arches extended with plastic trims.
The interior wasn’t quite as far removed from the regular Panda, but you still got a pair of sports seats, a leather-trimmed steering wheel, and a notable sixth ratio marked out on the high-mounted gearshift. This lever was one of the Panda’s best aspects, connected to both incredibly short ratios and a 1.4-litre 16-valve engine as energetic as a room full of sugar-crazed toddlers. Few cars I’ve driven encourage you to use quite so many revs quite so often, and while it’s a bit rowdy at motorway speeds, the tradeoff in such a tiny, lightweight car (975 kilos wet) is that it’ll do 40 miles to the gallon absolutely everywhere in spite of the screaming revs.
The Panda’s chassis isn’t what you might call sophisticated – anyone who has driven a more recent 500 Abarth will be familiar with the firm ride and slightly one-dimensional handling behaviour. But it was still a hoot, generating plenty of grip in the corners, and even delivered a sniff of feedback through the electrically assisted steering (better in Sport mode, which reduced assistance). Unlike a French hatch, there was no unsettling it, either – even if you didn’t tick the box for ESP – so you could press on a bit in the knowledge it probably wouldn’t spit you into the scenery.
The 100HP already has a bit of a cult following, but prices don’t reflect that. You can get into a pretty good 100HP for only three or four grand. It’s not due to any potentially ruinous issues, either, beyond the usual effects of old age. And being a small Fiat, parts and maintenance are generally affordable, too.
It’s the sporty variant of one of Fiat’s best cars this century, which alone would give the Panda 100HP a good head start as a future classic. But in making it an utter joy to look at and interact with, the 100HP will also sit up alongside Strada 130TCs, Uno Turbos, and Tipo Sedicivalvoles as one of the brand’s best classic hatches.