If you've ever enjoyed a budget Mediterranean holiday, chances are you will have encountered that rental favourite, the Fiat Panda. Almost wilfully basic, the first-generation Panda, born almost a quarter of a century ago, made up for its rusticities with fizzing enthusiasm and the fact that, on holiday at least, it did everything required for very little money. Fiat stopped selling it here years ago, but in Italy it survived until last year, costing just £3,400.
The new Panda isn't as cheap, but at £6,295 it's one of the least expensive cars on sale in the UK, and, more than that, it is now civilised. It has five doors to the original's three, an interior that actually looks finished and even flaunts a little charm amid its functionality. It's a decently finished car with a 1.1 litre engine and, if you plan nothing more than local trips and don't mind forgoing air-conditioning, is a more than adequate four-wheeled scoot-about.
If you buy further up-range and go for the 1.2 Dynamic with air-conditioning (£7,495), you'll get a decent car that will do long-distance trips as well as a grown-up car costing double the money. I can vouch for this, having completed a 48-hour round trip from London to John O'Groats to establish its effectiveness. It turned out to be so pleasantly capable that I'd have no qualms about doing it all over again.
A major reason for the Panda's civility is its architecture, a cross between a baby people-carrier and a hatchback. The front half of its cabin offers more space than you'd expect, a deep windscreen affords a fine forward vista and a slightly higher seating position to better enable you to enjoy it. Throw in comfortable seats and a sophisticated-looking dashboard, and you have a car that does not remind you endlessly that it's cheap - unlike most bottom-rung machines.
That said, space for adult back-benchers is not great. It's better for kids, even if you order a £200 sliding rear seat that extends knee-room at the expense of the somewhat meagre bootspace.
But as a two-plus-two, the Panda is terrific. The slightly bigger 60 bhp engine of the Dynamic is peppy enough to cruise at 85 mph and, more relevantly, it's configured to maximise round-town thrust, making the Fiat a fine weapon for clogged cities, especially as power steering, with two levels of assistance, is standard.
It also rides comfortably, is unexpectedly quiet (unless you thrash the engine needlessly), is surprisingly well-equipped and - unusual at this price - stylishly furnished. The dash presents a full complement of instruments, and to your left, a particularly well-designed centre console that positions the snappy gearchange close by, as well as a decent stereo and intelligible air conditioning controls. Apart from the odd cheapness here and there, you would not believe you were aboard a car costing well under £8,000.
Faults? Some may not like the way the Fiat heels over slightly when cornering, and there's the tight rear accommodation already mentioned. But that's pretty much it, making it easy to understand why it carries the European Car of the Year trophy. Oh, and by the time you read this, you should be able to order it with the world's finest small diesel engine, making it even cheaper to run, and no less civil.
Fiat Panda 1.2 Dynamic
Max power 60 bhp
Max torque 77 lb ft
Max speed 91 mph
0-62mph 13.9 sec
Fuel consumption 50.4 mpg
CO2 emissions 133 g/km
Citroen C3 1.1iL £8,995
Citroen's C3 offers more rear room, but it's not as well finished or as pleasant to drive.
Skoda Fabia 1.2 Class 54 £7,495
Better furnished and roomier than the Fiat, but with this low-power engine (and no air-con), it's a less effective all-rounder.