UNLIKE THE ENDEARING Fiat, this little panda is one in all but nomenclature, dubbed instead the LC. That’s acronym speak for ‘Life’s Cool’. Ours is the full spec GT (snigger) offering, yours for just R89 000. That makes it the only car at this price point with a four-cylinder engine and an exhaustive spec list. On paper then, the Geely LC is well poised to clean up the A-segment. Oh, but did we mention it’s made in China?
I can see it, can you? The panda connection is evident in everything from that cutesy visage comprising of sad panda eyes and oval mouth, to the panda tail rear wiper. Even the rear lamp clusters have been modelled as panda paw prints. Adorable. In my two weeks of custody I witnessed women swoon over it, and men openly revere it … as a great car for their wives. It has very strong feminine touches and as consequence plenty of feminine appeal. Having said that, I like it quite a lot for its quirkiness and those 14-inch alloy wheels which almost provide enough stance to complement my grin as I’m wringing its neck on an open bit of road. Its overall styling is clearly influenced by the likes of the Suzuki Alto and Toyota Aygo (and its French cousins) right down to the all-glass hatch lid. Personally I think it’s a fantastic effort, but then they went and applied smatterings of panda to the cabin too.
Oh dear, panda-monium ensues! The seats have been covered in tan and black fabric that, if I were being kind, I could compare to Mini Cooper trim. But it’s not like a Mini Cooper, not by a long shot, regardless of how many ellipses have found their way into the dashboard and hangdown. If you can learn to live with the mutilated endangered species interior then you’ll appreciate a tidy cabin with good ergonomics and luxury comforts such as aircon and USB enabled MP3 and CD player. There’s a lot of kit here, including park distance control, which is hardly a necessity in a car you could park on a R5 coin. If you’re a fan of new car smell however, I’m sorry to report that all you’ll encounter is toxic vapour inherent in a cockpit fashioned largely from nasty plastic, some of which is black, some tan, and some humorously rendered in faux carbon fibre. Another in-car perk on the GT model is an onboard fire extinguisher aft of the passenger seat. Now I consider myself an optimist, but upon seeing this I didn’t go ‘Ooh! Free fire extinguisher!’, opting rather for ‘Oh boy, Geely has prepared me for a fiery death’. Not exactly confidence inspiring.
Unlike its three-cylinder 1000cc rivals, the LC packs an in-line four with a commendable 63kW and 110Nm at its disposal. Aurally it’s rough and ready, and initial acceleration feels laboured. In other words, power delivery is not linear. Persevere past 3000rpm and the DOHC powerplant will surprise you with a second wind all the way to a sonorous 6500rpm. Not quite Chinese V-Tec, but I like the noise here. Gear changes are executed with the crunchy resonance of a video game cartridge slamming home, with the 2nd and 4th slots on the gate almost feeling as though they’re situated behind the driver’s elbow. Between shifts the engine barely drops its revs as if the flywheel is far too heavy for the task, sullying seamless shifting with constant whirring. Still, it’s a good transmission. The same cannot be said about the brakes, which lack feel and seem as though they’re near the end of their life – worrying as our test car has only done 3800 (presumably hard) kilometres.
Pootle around town and the panda car is perfectly at home, slotting into tiny parking spots and chowing up difficult tight turns like bamboo shoots. My favourite activity has however become charging up and down twisty on- and off-ramps, especially the carousel types, leaving GTI drivers dumbfounded. Let me explain. This thing has been blessed with some very entertaining handling thanks to a low kerb weight, accessible power and skinny tyres. Lift off oversteer? Overpowered understeer on entry? How about exit? It’s all here if you’re bonkers enough to look for it and there’s always ABS and EBD to help you reign it in again. The steering is too light and overassisted at pace, but the seats are an absolute pleasure, working hard to keep body roll in check. Ride quality feels on par for the segment although a couple of creaks in the chassis caused concern.
This is a tough one. You see, nothing broke on our car. On any given day during our test period the Geely LC ran without protest even when used to transport my little family hither and thither with shopping bags in tow. Pushed through a gymkhana course against its rivals I’m sure it would trump them for alacrity and entertainment. Plus the features list is good enough for the C-segment. Ultimately it is going to come down to the ownership experience, and in terms of reliability and build quality there are still issues here despite the car being leaps and bounds better than Geelys of the past. For your peace of mind however it is equipped with a 3-yr/100 000km warranty (with AA roadside assistance) and an optional service plan. Is that enough?