Have you ever considered what the modern world would be like if Italy had never formed part of it?

No pizza, risotto, salami and pesto. No Illy and Landucci coffees, Peroni or even shiny new Brabantia bins. More importantly: we wouldn’t be wearing Armani, Diesel, Gucci, Fendi, Prada, Versace or Dolce & Gabbana.

Yet, this list comprises trivial things if you were to ask any motoring fanatic’s opinion. A true lover of all things automotive would gladly give up his Gucci sunglasses, his Fendi bag, his morning cappuccino and his holiday in Tuscany if it meant that Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lamborghini and Ferrari would live forever.

Italian cars still leave many of us breathless. Think of Ferrari’s new California, Maserati’s gorgeous GranTurismo, Alfa Romeo’s eye-catching 8C Competizione and even Lamborghini’s lethal Réventon (even though the company now belongs to the country of Mussolini’s old pal, Hitler) and you’ll understand what I mean. But also take a minute to ponder the recent successes of Fiat, Italy’s largest automaker (and owner of all the before-mentioned marques – bar, of course, Lamborghini).

Fiat undoubtedly boasts some of the most stylish alternatives in the lower-end market segments. The Grande Punto reminds of a baby Maserati, while the elegantly sculpted Bravo, with its record-breaking 18-month production window, deserves more than one “bravo”! The new 500 also deserves a nod in the style stakes, even though it’s a late-to-the-party retro design aimed at the premium market. And then there’s the Panda.

The boxy little Panda, one of the “older” designs in the Fiat model offering, was a personal winner since the first time I laid eyes on it. Offered initially in the more-cute-than-functional 4X4 guise, it drew attention wherever it went, but was often criticized for its high price tag. Then came the entry-level models with tiny engines that matched the exterior dimensions.

Not too badly priced, these Pandas still didn’t sell as well as they should have. The Panda’s recent ranking in the JD Power & Associates initial quality survey put it in pole position, emphasizing that the only reason people wouldn’t buy one is because it wasn’t a “cool” brand. But then Fiat pulled out its trump card: the Panda 100HP.

Spunky alloy wheels, a sporty front grille and lower suspension suddenly made the boxy little city car appear much more imposing. I would buy a Panda 100HP based on its looks alone, but slide in behind the steering wheel, get comfortable and turn the key in the ignition: It may not be a V8, but the hearty growl is thoroughly grin-inducing.

In case you were wondering, the 100HP nomenclature refers to the Panda’s engine, a 1.4-litre mill that produces 74kW of power, or, 100 horsepower. Now 74kW may not sound like a lot (a VW Golf 5 1.6 has a 74kW engine), but when you put it in a tiny body, it makes a hell of a difference. Also, only two other cars match that power at a better price (VW’s Citi 1.6i and Suzuki’s new Swift).

In normal driving circumstances, the Panda 100HP is a pleasure, the small and boxy body combining with the superbly light steering to make parking a cinch. The suspension is however on the stiff side (more about that later) which equates to a decidedly bumpy ride on imperfect roads. Luckily the firm but comfortable seats provide ample support.

On the dashboard you’ll find all the buttons and dials you would expect, arranged in a neat, orderly and easy-to-reach ergonomically friendly layout. It’s also where you’ll find the “sport” button that promises to sharpen-up the steering and make the throttle more responsive. Thankfully it delivers on that promise, and then some!

Where the 100HP is already an extremely fun car to drive under normal circumstances, pushing that sport button transforms it from shopping trolley to pocket rocket. The slick 6-speed manual transmission adds to the boy-racer mood inside and there’s virtually no body roll even with the slightly higher body. While it may not actually be a rocket, it certainly feels like one which, combined with the high levels of driver involvement already required, makes it an immensely enjoyable car.

Fiat deserves congratulations for producing something as overwhelmingly enjoyable as the 100HP without sacrificing safety features or fuel economy. Even when accelerating flat out, the 100HP’s fuel consumption was never higher than expected.

Open any motoring buyer’s guide and you will see that you can’t buy much car these days for R130 500. A Toyota Yaris may save you some money, but after pimping it, it’ll not only cost the same (if not more) but still look ridiculous. You’ll also be stuck with a passport to Dullsville.

The Fiat Panda 100HP offers grin-inducing fun even when driving to the supermarket, almost maniacal open road prowess and superb handling in a package that is emotionally and spiritually enticing. When it comes to hot hatches, it delivers much, much more than you’d ever think – just like a good Italian meal.

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