The Sicilian Minivan

When it comes to transportation, I can be pretty picky. I’ve only owned one boring car in my life, a beige 2000 Honda Accord I named “Chuck”. Chuck got me from A-to-B just fine, and if I had a longer A-to-L or A-to-Q trip coming looming, I could make a few mix tapes to help me pass the time. He had cup holders and never broke down, and that’s about all he had in terms of redeeming qualities.

To say I was excited to get rid of Chuck would be an understatement.

Rental cars are always a good opportunity to try out something new. Back in the states, I’ve been known to spend an embarrassing amount of time in the pick-your-own-car lane at the car rental agonizing over whether I want to try out the new Impala (not bad) or its longtime rental fleet bestie, the Ford Fusion (complete, utter crap).

European car rental doesn’t really offer the same level of choice – at least, not that I’ve encountered – so it really can be luck of the draw. I’ve rented plain cars that ended up being great, and been duped into renting cars that I knew would be awful from the get-go.

Mostly, I hate cars that are boring. In the past, I have been known to say such things as “I don’t care what kind of car it is, so long as it’s interesting,” and I’ve used that to qualify such rental decisions as the Fiat 500. Which is a truly great car, by the way.

However, my commitment to that statement has been put into question after specifically requesting this:

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The Fiat Panda.

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A buck-toothed gasp of sheer astonishment. “You asked for me?”

This is the Fiat 500’s chubby younger brother. Same wheelbase (great for in town!) but two extra doors and a nice torque-y diesel.

panda-rear
And four wheels. Oh good.

I have long been intrigued by this car, for reasons I can’t explain. Evidence is driving all over this island that the Panda has been around in one form or another for a long time.

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Two last-gen Pandas. They come much older (and more beat up) than this, rest assured.

And they’re everywhere. Every Italian government agency (of which there seem to be plenty) has a whole mess of them. The utility companies have them. Everybody’s grandfather seems to drive an old one. It’s impossible to drive five minutes and not see seventeen of the things. They’re ubiquitous people haulers, the Sicilian version of the minivan.

panda-rearview
Room for three very close friends… close to each other, that is. As long as they’re small.

Mine represents the Panda’s finally-moving-out-of-mom’s-basement makeover. It’s funky. It’s hip. It’s covered head-to-toe in squircles.

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Nightmares are made of this stuff.

I feel like I’m driving a how-many-squircles-can-you-see picture.

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No bluetooth. And – inexplicably – the radio power button is round. Gah!

I also feel like everything in this car has been scaled to 90%. My knees jam into the dash. The steering wheel jams into my face. My elbows jam into the door and the passenger next to me. The pedals are so close that my legs cramp when I take my foot off the gas or the brake. Too much may have been given up to get that second row of seats in, so now the car is only big enough for Europeans.

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This photo exaggerates just how much room I have for my legs, since my right foot is tucked under the driver’s seat.

Not to say that this car is terrible. It has a manual transmission, though first feels loose and the remaining four gears give a quasi-reassuring “clunk” when shifting. Driving twisty mountain roads feels like I’m rattling along in a mine cart, out of control. Maybe something’s broken. I mean, this Italian beauty has all of 4000 km on it, things are going to have to start breaking eventually.

panda-wheel
Squircles on the plastic hubcaps.

Or in a day and age when Bluetooth integration is just as important as wheels, not having it would be unconscionable.

This car doesn’t have it.

panda-plastic
What it does have is finely detailed plastic trim. You’ll go crazy (and die of starvation) trying to find five consecutive letters that spell PANDA, though.

I’d love to wind back the clock and visit the boardroom when the car was being designed, because nothing about the name “Panda” invokes feelings of anything positive when it comes to a car. “Let’s build a car named after something that sleeps all day and eats food it’s not biologically equipped to digest, leaving it so malnourished that it’s too tired to even reproduce.”

panda-gearshift
Fifth gear is best described as “aspirational”. Also, squircle shift knob.

When put it that way, I’d say they got it just about right.

So no, this is not your typical all-style-no-substance-fashion-statement of a car. For that, it would need to be stylish. It’s practical, it’s mobile, and it’s all squircle-y.

It’s a Panda.

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