Cheap has never meant nasty with European city cars, which sometimes have as much design flair as any exotic sports model. Understandable, for it’s a very competitive genre.
The light-vehicle segment is just as important in Japan, but the cars have often seemed to be more appliances than objects of desire.
The Fiat Panda is a classic case of Euro-chic: a tiny hatchback with exquisite attention to styling detail and a novel two-cylinder powerplant. Currently on offer for $14,990 in entry-level Easy specification, it’s a little taste of Italy for pocket change.
Suzuki knows how to make a supermini with character: consider the super-successful Swift. But it has struggled a bit with smaller city cars: consider the underwhelming Alto and Splash.
The replacement for both those models is the new $15,990 Celerio, which has a terrible name but looks quite promising: the angry-eyes styling is interesting and it has a characterful three-cylinder engine under the bonnet.
Both these cars give you a whole lot of change from $20k and both aim to be a cut above your average city car. So which is best?
The Panda’s comedy powertrain could be a whole story in itself. Fiat’s TwinAir two-cylinder turbo engine actually represents a lot of technology for the money. It’s big on power and torque — relatively speaking — and is matched to an automated single-clutch five-speed gearbox. So essentially it’s a manual, but with no third pedal.
Unlike the dual-clutch systems used by Volkswagen and Ford, the Panda’s so-called Dualogic is far from smooth and really works best when you drive it like a manual: feather the throttle on upshifts and ideally manage the gears yourself via the pseudo-manual shift gate. Making smooth progress in city driving as the car pup-pups along is a challenge and there’s a genuine sense of achievement to be gained from mastering the technology. It takes some work.
The Suzuki couldn’t be anything but easy. The thrummy engine is a non-turbo unit and the gearbox is a simple five-speed manual with three pedals, old-school style. The powerplant lacks the low-down torque of its rival but it spins smoothly and the gearbox is a delight.
The Fiat has stop-start, the Suzuki does not. The Italian has a slightly better fuel economy figure of 4.2 litres per 100km. Not that the Japanese car is exactly profligate at 4.7 litres.
Around town, the Panda gets the nod for its softer ride and adjustable steering. The wheel is pretty light in normal mode, but if you press the City button it’s truly a steer-by-fingertip affair — to the point where you might wonder whether it’s connected to anything.
The Celerio has a firmer ride than the Panda. The steering is a bit weird, though: it feels more substantial than its rival’s, but there’s a lack of self-centring that takes some getting used to. Wind on lock for a 90-degree corner and you find you have to wind quite a bit of it back off again.
Will anybody drive these cars on the open road? Likely not, but there are such things as city motorways and their 100km/h performance does indicate the level of engineering excellence (or otherwise) that lies beneath.
The Panda has quite long legs for open-road cruising, turning over 2000rpm at 100km/h. But come the fast corners it squirms its way around, with a ready supply of tyre-squealing understeer and body roll.
The Suzuki is too busy to drive too far, spinning away at 3000rpm when you’re cruising at the open-road speed limit. But it’s quite talented in the corners, with crisp turn-in and good body control. That should not surprise, for underneath the Celerio’s odd styling is the platform of the previous Swift. It might sound like a hedge trimmer and look like a novelty biscuit tin, but Celerio handles turns with aplomb.
The Fiat is a much older design than the Suzuki but has a superior crash-test rating: five stars under the ANCAP regime compared with four stars for the Japanese car.
The Panda’s cabin is a riot of colour and one shape which Fiat calls a “squircle” — basically a square with rounded edges. Squircles appear everywhere, from the shape of the doorhandles to the instruments. The headlights are squircles. So are the three-quarter windows at the rear. The Fiat is crammed full of design detail like that — for example, look closely at the dashboard plastic and you’ll see it has an interesting texture. Look more closely and you’ll see that texture is actually the name “Panda” repeated thousands of times.
The interior design is a delight, the ergonomics a bit of a disaster. The switchgear is simple enough, but everyday functions like changing the radio station or pairing a new Bluetooth phone are a bit of a dark art.
The Celerio’s interior is absolutely bare-basics, with clear instrumentation and simple controls. Perceived quality isn’t up to Fiat standards, though: the plastics lack texture and the top of the dashboard wobbles if you apply pressure with one little finger. The centre console is not that securely attached, either.
Luxurious these cars are not. But the Suzuki offers power-adjustable mirrors both sides, whereas the Fiat’s are manual; luckily you can reach across to the passenger’s side without moving from the driver’s seat. Score one for the Fiat with reversing sensors as standard, though; you could argue that this technology is not necessary in such a small car, but if you’re squeezing into very tight gaps it does speed up the process.
The Panda is the longer of the two by 53mm at 3653mm, but the Celerio has an extra 125mm in the wheelbase. That’s a lot and it pays off in rear-seat space: there’s noticeably more legroom than the Fiat, although you have to adopt a sit-up-and-beg seating position in both.
Boots? They both have one. Sort of. Not much in it (quite literally) with 225 litres of loadspace in the Panda and 254 litres in the Celerio. Rear seats with a 60/40 split are common to both.
The bottom line
If there’s an ounce of enthusiast in you, the Panda is irresistible. It’s a design statement, technologically interesting and a genuine challenge to drive. It has to be our winner.
Admittedly, that’s not a city-car recipe for everybody.
If you want the simple life or plan to do some circuit work in your city car, the Celerio could be for you. Either way, you’re getting a lot of (small) car for your money.
FIAT PANDA EASY TWINAIR SUZUKI CELERIO GLX
875CC two-cylinder turbo-petrol 1-litre three cylinder petrol.