Designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Panda was designed as a modern day "peasant car": A cheap, basic, no-frills utility vehicle that would be easy to use and maintain. The car can be seen as a later approach to the same niche the Citroën 2CV or Renault 4 were designed to serve. Introduced in 1980, the Panda was noted for its box-like styling, which would become the house style for Fiats throughout the 1980s. Mechanically the first Pandas borrowed heavily from the Fiat parts bin. Engines and transmissions came from the Fiat 127 and, in certain territories, the air-cooled 652cc two-cylinder powerplant from the Fiat 126. The drive for a mechanically simple car was also evident in the rear suspension, which used a dead axle suspended on leaf springs. Later versions of the car added various mechanical improvements but this spirit of robust simplicity was adhered to throughout the life of the model.
Many design features denote the Panda's "utility car" role. Examples include a 7-position adjustable rear seat which could be folded flat to make a bed, or folded into a V shape to support awkward loads, or easily and quickly removed altogether to increase the overall load space. The first Pandas also featured removable, washable seat covers, door trims and dashboard cover, and all the glass panels were flat making replacements easy and cheap to produce. Much like its earlier French counterparts the Panda could be specified with a full-length roll back canvas roof.