Fiat Panda and Volkswagen Gol: four decades of differences and similarities

Never having officially competed with one another might be the reason why both superminis have had such successful histories

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1980 Volkswagen Gol and 1980 Fiat Panda

Everything makes it difficult to prosper in today’s market. There are dozens of companies competing for the same customers, actions in one region may affect sales in the whole world, social media can have huge influence whether for good or for bad, people are eager to try what’s new and flashy and don’t mind moving from brand to brand every time… It’s no longer adequate to talk about a single good business model for anything because the concept changes as you read this.

Such scenario makes it even more impressive to announce not one, but two cars turning forty this year: the Fiat Panda and the Volkswagen Gol. Enthusiasts may find it odd to see them in the same article because they appear to be different at everything, but that’s not so much the case: they have some similarities as well, and they’re not really hard to spot. With such an intriguing set of characteristics, it was simply impossible not to invite both models for a joint celebratory article.

1980 Fiat Panda and 1980 Volkswagen Gol

Piccolo here, klein there

Fiat created its model to deal with Italians’ need for affordable transportation. It was suffering the effects of the oil crisis, so any new car should be small, nimble enough for urban streets and fuel-efficient. Beauty wasn’t a priority here, which made it clear that this was a rational purchase. Domus magazine says Giorgetto Giugiaro’s infant son quickly nicknamed it “refrigerator” due to its boxy design. The focus was to offer a spacious cabin with reduced external size at low prices.

Volkswagen, in turn, wanted to replace the Beetle in Brazil, but couldn’t use the European Golf for reasons you’re going to read here in a while. The solution was a regional project that closely resembled siblings like the first-generation Passat and Scirocco. Since low consumption was also important there, the Gol featured a much shorter rear fascia than what the buyers were used to see. That and the angular design earned it the nickname “axe-cut”, which lasted a couple years.

1980 Fiat Panda and 1980 Volkswagen Gol

Although the models were born in such different circumstances, they shared the trait of having a small cabin. The Panda mitigated that problem through solutions such as converting the dashboard into the full-width storage area shown at the photo, and front seats which could be folded up to the point of forming a small bed along with the rear ones. The Gol came with a much more common cabin, but it took a toll on its capabilities to satisfy its target customers: the cramped interior became fodder for criticism up to the end of the first generation’s cycle, in 1994.

1987 Fiat Panda 4x4 Sisley and 1984 Volkswagen Gol GT

Ragione here, Gefühl there

Affordability was a priority in the Panda’s project, and it shows in many other ways. The upholstery was washable, the seats were removable, windows and windshields used flat glass and the general design differed from anything Fiat had offered so far — even the Ritmo, the immediately older model, looked too old compared to the newcomer. The Panda ended up setting a trend that was perfectioned for its urban sibling Uno and, years later, the larger and more sophisticated Tipo.

When it comes to the Gol, sportiness was the priority. The coupé-like external design was heavily inspired in the first Scirocco’s and, while Volkswagen tried to advertise as a car of the future back in 1980, it soon shifted to an emotional line: the hatchback would receive countless special editions, sporty trim levels and exclusive accessories. On the other hand, it would pretty much follow the automaker’s successive visual identities time after time without noticeable attempts to innovate.

1982 Fiat Panda Super and 1982 Volkswagen Gol Copa

Both models arrived with one air-cooled engine and only two doors; while the first feature was quickly dropped, the other would only be abandoned when they reached the second generation. The air-cooled engine was deemed too inefficient for such a pragmatic model as the Panda, while it clashed with the sporty flair Volkswagen intended for the Gol. When it comes to the two-door body, the fact that both reached huge sales figures without ever considering the other option was impressive even in the 1980s, when it was popular in almost all segments of the generalist market.

2003 Fiat Panda and 1994 Volkswagen Gol

Avventura here, Leistung there

Being made to measure to fulfill a need made the Panda quickly rise to market success: half a million cars were sold in the first year. Once Fiat had the Uno to better satisfy urban customers, the Panda was set free to go the other way: the 4x4 variation was released in 1983 and became another hit for what it offered and the fact that it had no direct competitors: the cheap, reliable car for short trips could now help people who lived and/or worked in remote regions even in the peak of winter.

Being a subversive substitute for such a traditional model gave the Gol a hard time: Volkswagen almost removed it early. However, once people began to see its advantages compared to the “Fusca” and its sporty potential, it was set free to build its own image: it became the best-selling car in Brazil in 1987. A huge chunk of those sales came from performance-oriented trim levels like the GTi, which built on the GT’s hype by being the first model in Brazil with electronic fuel injection.

2006 Fiat Panda 100HP and 2001 Volkswagen Parati

Another common point is having spent a long time stuck in the first generation. The Panda ended up a best-selling niche car, so Fiat took advantage of it and kept it loyal to the original recipe for as long as it could. The Gol, on the other hand, had to live up to the status of low-cost family car it acquired over the years, so it had to change in 1994, nine years early. Nevertheless, the Italian supermini got a whole new generation, whereas the Brazilian got a heavy redesign. Nowadays, both are in their third phase, but they’ve already drifted apart in pretty much every possible aspect.

2012 Fiat Panda 4x4 and 2008 Volkswagen Gol

Solitario here, vertraut there

As the previous paragraph says, the Panda has always been a niche model for Fiat; the traditional hatchback market was taken care of by the 127, then Uno and Punto. That freed the low-cost compact to have an independent timeline which featured the aforementioned AWD system, a weird-looking Van version in 1986, the Elettra version in 1992, a second generation with countless trim levels, and a third generation that offered electric propulsion for the first time with a hybrid version.

The Gol underwent the ups and downs of forming a family: two and four-door hatch, the Voyage sedan, the Parati wagon, and the Saveiro pick-up. Each one had versions and even life cycles of its own, which made their platform a true best-seller for the Brazilian Volkswagen. The problem is that any changes had to be shared with all of them, so implementing any novelty became expensive, complex and risky. VW would tone down the improvements to apply them to all the members.

2020 Fiat Panda Hybrid and 2018 Volkswagen Voyage

The most recent way these models have coincided isn’t positive as the others: despite the very successful careers, both are facing uncertain fates nowadays. Fiat has become a partner of both Chrysler and PSA, so it shall only improve the Panda as long as it doesn’t clash with any of the group’s other cars. The Gol family, in turn, has been forced to share its clientele with Fox, Polo, up! and their own siblings. While both cars still boast strong image, their makers must act so as not to render them irrelevant. What we can see is that they’re still getting new items of style and powertrain.

2019 Fiat Panda connected by Wind and 2016 Volkswagen Saveiro

Futuro here, Zukunft there

The most important conclusion one can make about those two histories is that there are several ways to reach commercial success. Fiat developed an oddball hatchback which rose to fame as affordable and practical but ended up getting better and better at comfort and style as well. Volkswagen, in turn, focused its model in sportiness at first but ended making it a reliable family of entry-level family cars whose only big problem is having become, perhaps, more rational than its public would like.

In the modern market, especially under the current circumstances, any fate is possible for those car models: they can obtain new derivatives or lose the ones they already have, they can get a new generation focused on broadening their scope, or they can simply be left to lose market share to younger models until it’s no longer interesting to keep them in line. However, they’ve already built a legacy in the car world from which every maker should draw lessons to design even better models.

Writer and future engineer striving to work with car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.