First drive review: Fiat Panda 4x4
What is it?
It's the third iteration of a real workhorse. Since its introduction 29 years ago, the Panda 4x4 has been universally accepted as a highly capable 4x4 but free from the pretentious image typically associated with off-roaders. The new car has all the quirks and commodities you'd expect from a normal Panda, but it has been mated to a permanent four-wheel-drive system with two differentials and an electronically-controlled coupling, hooked up to an electronic control unit. It's also been jacked up by 50mm. Despite its ability and obvious charm, Fiat doesn't expect it to be a big seller - just 600 units are predicted to be sold in 2013.
What's under the bonnet?
Two engines which are suitable for two distinct customers. For petrol there's Fiat's 85bhp 0.9-litre two-cylinder TwinAir unit, which, thanks to its low first gear is more than capable off-road. In theory it returns 57.6mpg on the combined cycle and emits 114g/km of CO2. However, it must be said, the TwinAir unit is probably more suitable for buyers who want their Panda 4x4 to be a normal Panda for 364 days of the year, and an off-roader for the other day. The 75bhp 1.3-litre MultiJet 2 diesel is much more suitable to going off-road thanks to all of its 190Nm of torque being available at 1,500rpm. It emits 125g/km of CO2 and returns 60.1mpg combined. On the road, however, it's rather noisy and sluggish.
What's the kit like?
You'll probably have noticed by now 4x4s get rugged bodywork. But it's not for show as those larger bumpers protect the front and rear overhangs, and a steel scuff plate runs underneath to protect the sump guard. The 15-inch wheels are shod with winter and snow tyres as standard. Panda 4x4s are comparable to the Panda Lounge version - bar a higher centre console which is home to another storage compartment. So that means you get air conditioning, electric and heated door mirrors and Fiat's Blue&Me Bluetooth system. The TwinAir 4x4 costs £13,950 while the diesel is keenly priced at £14,950.
If you look at the Panda 4x4 as a supermini off-roader with permanent four-wheel-drive, then there are no rivals. Look at it as a small 4x4 and the only real competitor in terms of price is the Suzuki Jimny. The Japanese car is just as rugged off the Tarmac but its on-road manners and interior comfort leave a lot to be desired. However, after a cheap 4x4? Don't forget the Dacia Duster which undercuts the Italian by quite some margin and is noticeably more spacious.
Is it any good?
It's brilliant. Fiat took us on an off-road course normally used by tanks and the Panda sailed through - even the course's biggest hills and thickest mud were no obstruction for the idiosyncratic Italian. For off-roading use, the diesel is better than the petrol, and on the road it's the other way around. The raised ride height does its best to give a comfortable journey, although the car can get very jittery on long stretches of uneven Tarmac. Well-weighted steering, a high setting position and a slick gearbox (five-speed in the diesel; six speed in the petrol) make for an enjoyable steer.
The AOL Cars verdict
Adored on the continent, the Panda 4x4 has always had a small but loyal following in the UK. It really is the motoring equivalent of a donkey: willing, charming and a real grafter. The third-generation car continues this but adds some more supermini comfort to the mix. It's pricy but it's one of those rare cars that is a really interesting proposition.
Model: Fiat Panda 4x4 1.3 MultiJet
Price: £16,440 (as tested)
Engine: 1.3-litre, turbocharged diesel
Power: 75bhp, 190Nm
Max speed: 99mph
MPG (comb'd): 60.1