Photo Report: Driving a Fiat Panda through Sardinia, Italy

Panda Blu sunsetEsmeralda, our “Panda blu”

After exploring remote areas of the Chinese Sichuan Province, we now fly over to the European summer, more precisely in Sardinia, an Italian island located west of the mainland and south of the French Corsica island in the Mediterranean Sea. Our itinerary goes around the island anticlockwise, starting and ending in Olbia on the north-eastern coast and exploring such wonders as the Costa Smeralda, the jetset cities of Porto Rotondo and Porto Cervo, the stunning archipelago of La Maddalena…

1. Fiat 500X Bosa SardiniaFiat 500X and Lancia Ypsilon in Bosa, Sardinia (click on any picture to enlarge).

… Santa Teresa de Gallura from where we can clearly see the Corsican coast, Castelsardo, Alghero, Bosa, San Salvatore, Cagliari, Terra Male and Cala Gonone (see map below). It’s a total of 1.450km over six days – many thanks to Audrey for putting on the driving cap every second day. Our ride in Sardinia is, logically, a rental Fiat Panda. The Panda is the current best-selling vehicle in Italy with 8% market share and sales up 23% so far in 2016, but also the #1 vehicle in the rental car sales charts in 2015.

Sardinia mapThe itinerary: from Olbia to Olbia, via Alghero, Bosa and Cagliari.

After Albert the Ram 1500 in our U.S. Coast to Coast 2014 exploration, Bob the Ram 2500 in our U.S. North to South 2015 Report, Charlie the Jeep Wrangler in our Hawaii 2016 Report and Damo the Haval H8 of our Australian Outback adventure, the next BSCB ride had to get a name starting with E. We chose to baptise our “Panda blu” Esmeralda, the first female name we choose at BSCB, simply because this is the first “car” we drive as opposed to the “trucks” we had before. In French, my native language, a car is feminine and a truck is masculine, and therein lies the rationale behind all our name choices.

2. Fiat Panda Cagliari SardiniaFiat Panda II in CagliariFiat Panda Bosa SardiniaFiat Panda I in Bosa

But why “Panda blu” I hear you ask. Upon arriving long after sunset in the tiny northern village of Aglientu, we asked our way to a group of Italian mammas gossiping on the sidewalk. One of them promptly picked up her mobile phone to directly call the manager of the accommodation we were staying at and give her directions to come pick us up. Description of our car: “una panda blu” – said in the endearing singing voice of all Italian mammas. That would be because our Panda was blue (same pronunciation in Italian). We thought it rang well, even better than Esmeralda. So it would be our “Panda blu” from then on. But patience: the full Panda blu review is further down in this article.

Fiat Panda Palau Sardinia 2Fiat Panda III in PalauFiat Seicento Bosa SardiniaFiat Seicento and Panda I in Bosa

The most frequent nameplates spotted over the entirety of the trip, from various tiny town streets to large autostradas, were without a second thought the Fiat Panda followed by the Punto, in this way reflecting the past decade of new car sales in Italy as a whole and aligning Sardinia with the rest of the country. The Panda has indeed just overstepped the Punto for the first time in the Past decade sales charts (see table below). All generations of the two nameplates are very well represented, but a striking observation is the high frequency of first generation Pandas (1980-2003) compared to the near-absence of any Fiat Uno (1983-1995). Granted, the Uno had a much shorter lifespan but it obliterated the Italian sales charts then, culminating at 23.8% share in 1986.

Best-selling nameplates in Italy – Past decade (2006-2015):

Pos Model 2006-2015
1 Fiat Panda 1,370,026
2 Fiat Punto 1,366,027
3 Ford Fiesta 673,429
4 Lancia Ypsilon 539,357
5 Fiat 500 490,096
6 VW Golf 468,922
7 Citroen C3 433,532
8 Toyota Yaris 414,806
9 Opel Corsa 401,772
10 VW Polo 374,272

Source: UNRAE

Time has passed since that domination though, and not many Unos have survived up to this day. Instead, the first generation Panda, inside the annual podium during most of its 24 year-career (it ranked #2 in 2002!), has left a much stronger mark on today’s Sardinian car landscape. The 2nd generation Panda, #2 in Italy during its entire career (20042011), is the most frequent vehicle on the Sardinian coast, slowly being caught up by the 3rd gen which has led its home market without interruption since its first full year of sales in 2012, ending then 18 consecutive years of Punto domination.

Citroen Mehari La Maddalena SardiniaCitroen Méhari in La Maddalena.

During all our worldwide explorations, we often declare cars as the heroes of a specific region as they appear to be particularly successful there. Sardinia has two heroes.

1. Citroen Méhari

Just as the cumbersome e-Mehari makes its entrance in Europe, the first Sardinian hero is the valiant Citroen Méhari (1968-1988), a kind of ancestor to the off-road convertible SUV. This observation is particularly valid in the archipelago of La Maddalena, in a way an island of an island. Méharis stream through La Maddalena, the main town of the island, to the point that it’s not uncommon to have at least one in our field of vision at any given time – see picture below with 3 Méharis “at once”. The perfect summer car even almost 50 years after its original launch and 28 after its discontinuation, the Méhari would remain a surprising symbol of this Sardinian trip.

Citroen Mehari x3 La Maddalena SardiniaThere are three Citroen Méharis on this picture – in La Maddalena.

For a bit of history, 144.953 Méharis were produced in twenty years. Originally, a méhari is a fast-running camel which can be used for racing or transport, this according to Wikipedia. The Méhari weighs just 535 kg (1,179 lb), has a body made of ABS plastic with a soft top and is based on the Citroen Dyane 6. It employs the 602cc flat twin petrol engine shared with the 2CV6 and Citroen Ami, similarly to the way the mechanical parts of the 1960 Mini became the 1964 Mini Moke. And it’s fair to say Sardinians are still in love with this endearing vehicle. Plus, my observations throughout the island showed the Citroen brand surprisingly strong with a continuous stream of 1st gen C3, the C-Elysée already common as well as many C3 Picasso, new C4 Picasso and 1st gen Xsara Picasso.

Land Rover Defender Bosa SardiniaLand Rover Defender in Bosa
Land Rover Defender San Salvatore SardiniaLand Rover Defender in San Salvatore 

2. Land Rover Defender

Second hero of the island, the just discontinued Land Rover Defender was a true surprise. Sardinia has a very modern road network serving the very touristy coastline, and the first impression is that this shouldn’t require any vehicle to have any particular 4WD abilities. But once venturing inland it’s a vastly different story. In no time, the network transforms into tiny winding roads making their way up the relatively high mountains populating the centre of the island, notwithstanding a multitude of rocky dirt tracks that we did not dare explore. The Defender thus became a staple of the Sardinian inland, along with its license plates always starting with ZA. This is not a separate 4WD categorisation as I first thought, rather the mandatory lettering when your rear plate is square – one of the many intricacies of the Italian license plates system.

Citroen C1 Land Rover Defender Bosa SardiniaCitroen C1 in Bosa
Fiat Panda 500 Palau SardiniaFiat Panda and 500 in Palau

Italy Full Year 2015 – sales to rental companies:

Pos Model 2015 % % rental /14 2014 % Pos
1 Fiat Panda 24,726 7.9% 20% -6% 26,346 10.0% 1
2 Fiat 500L 22,721 7.3% 46% 10% 20,656 7.8% 2
3 Fiat 500 13,615 4.4% 33% -20% 17,046 6.4% 3
4 Peugeot 308 9,130 2.9% 51% n/a n/a n/a n/a
5 VW Golf 8,799 2.8% 22% 14% 7,722 2.9% 6
6 Fiat 500X 8,196 2.6% 25% new 0 0.0%
7 Fiat Punto 7,739 2.5% 14% -36% 12,003 4.5% 4
8 Alfa Romeo Giulietta 7,329 2.3% 32% 32% 5,539 2.1% 9
9 Lancia Ypsilon 7,251 2.3% 13% -12% 8,240 3.1% 5
10 Renault Clio 7,182 2.3% 17% 10% 6,529 2.5% 7

Source: UNRAE

Being a touristic hotspot, the Sardinian car park is heavily influenced by rental cars such as our Panda blu, with the Fiat Panda incidentally the most popular vehicle with Italian rental companies in 2015 ahead of the Fiat 500L, for which a staggering 46% of its 2015 total sales are to rental companies (see table above). Only the Peugeot 308 does “better” (51%) in the Top 10. Up 10% last year vs. a 6% drop by the Panda, the 500L should logically take the lead of the rental sales charts this year, and indeed it is omnipresent on Sardinian roads, as well as the facelifted Fiat 500, #3 rental in 2015. The Fiat 500X is also strong in Sardinia, but at 25% rental ratio it falls closer to the national average (20%) which could indicate it is also particularly successful with private buyers here.

Alghero street scene SardiniaStreet scene in Alghero

Another striking observation in Sardinia – even though it is true in the whole of Italy – is the prevalence of station wagons in the larger car segments. For example, the new generation VW Passat is extremely frequent on Sardinian roads – partly because of its popularity as a rental car – yet I only spotted one sedan in six days. All the rest, probably close to fifty specimens, were station wagons. Even though the station wagon segment has been hit full frontal by the SUV craze and in sharp decline in the whole of Europe bar Sweden, sales in Italy remain solid at 87.614 over the first 7 months of 2016, a whopping 17% year-on-year increase earning it a stable 7.4% market share. The Audi A4 is the best-seller so far in 2016 but it will be interesting to follow the launch of the Tipo SW over the 2nd half of the year as it is the only true Italian offer in a particularly successful segment, and therefore could be destined to huge success.

Italy 7 months 2016 – station wagon sales:

Pos Model 7m 2016 % % SW /15 7m 2015 % Pos
1 Audi A4 8,131 9.3% 90% 56% 5,210 7.0% 4
2 Peugeot 308 7,942 9.1% 59% 21% 6,545 8.7% 1
3 VW Passat 6,386 7.3% 90% 21% 5,268 7.0% 3
4 Ford Focus 6,319 7.2% 61% 9% 5,781 7.7% 2
5 Renault Clio 5,925 6.8% 18% 38% 4,284 5.7% 5
6 BMW 3 Series 5,798 6.6% 81% 44% 4,026 5.4% 7
7 Skoda Octavia 4,657 5.3% 95% 17% 3,987 5.3% 8
8 Opel Astra 4,603 5.3% 56% 10% 4,203 5.6% 6
9 Toyota Auris 3,796 4.3% 58% 12% 3,382 4.5% 10
10 VW Golf 3,177 3.6% 11% 6% 2,999 4.0% 11

Source: UNRAE

The Renault Clio (#5) is the only small car in the Top 10 SW with 1 in 5 Clio sold being a station wagon, and this is confirmed looking at the Sardinian car landscape: the occurrence of Clio SW is a lot higher than at home in France for example. Compact cars occupy five spots in the Top 10 including the Peugeot 308 at #2 (#1 in 2015) and the Ford Focus at #3 with an average of 60% SW ratio except for the Golf (11%). Larger cars are almost exclusively sold as station wagons in Italy and this is a particularity of the local market: no other market in the world behaves this way. Confirming my observations in Sardinia, 90% of Audi A4 and VW Passats are sold as SW, 81% of BMW 3 Series and 95% of Skoda Octavia…

Jeep Renegade La Maddalena SardiniaJeep Renegade in La MaddalenaRenault Clio Bosa SardiniaRenault Clio in Bosa

Sardinian new car sales outpaced Italy as a whole in 2015 at +18% to 25.293 units vs. +16% nationwide. The largest provinces are Cagliari at 9.886 (+18%), Sassari at 6.131 (+24%), Olbia-Tempio at 2.225 (-0.6%) and Carbonia Iglesias at 1.943 (+26%). The smallest is Ogliastra at 603 (+33%). Other popular vehicles across the island include the Jeep Renegade – particularly in La Maddalena as pictured above, the Renault Clio and Captur, Smart Forfour and the Fiat Tipo sedan already although I spotted only one hatch all week.

Panda Blu Sicily by CarOur Panda blu.

Our Panda blu was a rental from Sicily by Car (weird) – by far the cheapest option at 309.75€ for 6 days (US$346) – and a solid companion all through the trip, with no gremlins to report. Sitting inside places you too high in the car – regardless of your height – and the seat is not adjustable that way. There is no USB port which meant no personal music the entire trip, only a… CD player as if tourists were still travelling around with all their music on CDs. The interior design on the other hand is one of the strengths of the car: it’s modern yet playful while replicating the rounded square theme that characterises the car as a whole (headlights…), such as for the hand brake.

Panda Blu detailPanda Blu interior detail: it has its name written all over it… 

Very creative: the letters of the word PANDA make up the texture of the console and interior door top skin (see picture above). Definitely some Italian design flair here. The gear shift placed on the central console – and not on the ground – ends up being quite comfortable in the long run. Pushing our Panda blu to 145 km/h (90 mph) resulted in no notable vibrating or shaking of the car but the small bumps on the autostrada sent the car’s backend a little loose – scary. Above 100 km/h (62 mph), a strident whistling makes its apparition at the base of the driver door window frame, potentially the result of imperfect joints. The car remains relatively silent at high speed though.

Panda Blu Ferry SardiniaOur Panda blu on the Palau-La Maddalena ferry

The overall impression is one of practicality and fun modernity, a car that will do the job and put a smile on your face while driving, all-in-all a very good result given the cut-throat starting price of 8.250€ (US$ 9.230) the Panda is offered at in Italy. No wonder it’s the best-seller here.

Fiat Multipla Cagliari SardiniaFiat Multipla in Cagliari
Maserati Levante Porto Cervo SardiniaMaserati Levante in Porto Cervo
Audi Costa Smeralda SardiniaAudi advertising in Porto CervoAutostrada 50kph limitation Sardinia50km/h speed limit on the “autostrada”

Finally, I couldn’t end this summer Photo Report without a few hand-picked particularities of Sardinia, with an automotive angle of course. Firstly, the autostradas are new and very well maintained, but sometimes tout a 50km/h (31 mph) speed limit… Given the frequency of ridiculously low speed limits popping up everywhere on the island, we came to the conclusion that it was the only way the Sardinian police had found to shock drivers into driving slightly slower. It’s not working: a rule-of-thumb is that it is ok to drive at 3 times the speed limit. 30km/h means 90, 50 means 150, etc… Yep, this is the wild, wild west.
Talking about the wild west, every service station has at least one bay where staff is supposed to fill up your tank for you, at a premium. You must try and find the bay that says “piuself” as sometimes the price difference per litre can verge on the nasty side of outrageous: one Esso servo had a self-serve price of 1.389 € per litre whereas the “rip-off” price was 1.639 €/L, with no indications anywhere whatsoever and no staff to serve you anywhere anyway! Advice from experience: make sure to read the price/L on the actual pump before starting to fill up. Sneaky, but we are in Italy after all.

Mini WoodyClubman by Castagna Porto Cervo SardiniaMini WoodyClubman by Castagna Porto Cervo Sardinia 2Mini WoodyClubman by Castagna in Porto Cervo

The Photo Report continues below with the remainder of the 40 Pictures.
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