FIRST DRIVE – FIAT PANDA 4X4 (2013)
THE characteristics of an off-road course can change dramatically with the weather.
One day there are cloying muddy troughs and slimy slopes to contend with, the next the ruts are jagged and frozen and the gradients resemble a vertical ice rink.
Faced with a combination of both you might expect a heavy-duty 4×4 with the most sophisticated hardware would be required.
Actually that’s not the case. There’s a city car out there that can make light of those conditions, both surprising and thrilling its driver in the process.
Nimble, chunky and cheap enough to provide most buyers with a fun-packed off-road experience, the Fiat Panda 4×4 is one terrific little motor.
But then this permanent four-wheel drive model has been proving its versatility for nigh on 30 years and the new third generation version, which hits the streets this week, builds on the strength of its predecessors – with a whole lot more style to boot.
Aimed at drivers who want city car features without sacrificing either the space and comfort of a five-door hatchback or the all-terrain ability of an SUV, this ultimate Panda can set you up for the rough stuff from £13,950.
That’s for the model powered by Fiat’s 0.9-litre TwinAir petrol engine, while the 1.3 MultiJet diesel costs an extra £1,000.
What you get is a car that looks compact and rugged, has raised ground clearance, a more rigid body than before and a suspension designed for on-road comfort and off-road aptitude.
The off-road course at Stoneleigh Park in the heart of England is best described as nasty – not too long but tight, tricky and featuring the sort of descents that owners of 4x4s costing three times the price of the Panda may prefer not to attempt.
I knew the Panda 4×4 could cope with it; the surprise was just how superbly it performed and in both engine variants.
Traction on the slopes was exceptional and the car was compact and light enough to slip through a sludge-plugged trench, crunch the thin ice on a bowl-shaped water splash and ease down a part-frozen mud slope – in double quick time.
Out on the road the 4×4 is also comfortable and spirited, though the petrol version sounds noisy at low speed. Otherwise it offers the same fun factor as the regular Panda.
It looks the part too with its body-coloured bumpers and satin aluminium finished skid-plate, roof rails, side mouldings with 4×4 logo, black wheel arches and side skirts and 15-inch dark alloy wheels.
Inside, there are twin-coloured seats, coloured dashboard, door panels in coloured ‘eco-leather’ and a gloss black instrument surround.
Launched at the same time as the 4×4 is the Panda Trekking, billed as the world’s first CUV or City Utility Vehicle and featuring the same raised ride height but combining front-wheel drive with a sophisticated traction control system.
Engine choice is the same, including Start/Stop and power steering with lighter City mode, and something called Traction+ is standard.
If you’re stuck in a muddy car park or hit a slippery surface then pressing a button on the dash at speeds up to 18mph will transfer more torque to the wheel with better grip and ensure you can pull away properly.
Prices for the Trekking start at £12,450 for the TwinAir version, with £13,450 for the MultiJet and the styling treatment is similar to the 4×4 but with a black skid-plate instead of satin aluminium and lighter finish alloy wheels.
The 85bhpTwinAir petrol engine gives the Panda 4×4 a top speed of 103mph (Trekking 106mph), Combined fuel consumption of 57.6mpg (61.4mpg) and a CO2 figure of 114g/km (105g/km).
The 75bhp MultiJet can reach 99mph (100mph Trekking), returns 60.1mpg (67.3mpg) and has a CO2 figure of 125g/km (109g/km).
Safety measures see six airbags, four of them standard, ABS anti-lock braking and Electronic Stability Programme included as standard, and among numerous options is the City Brake Control low speed collision mitigation system.
You also get air-con, Blue&Me multimedia system, a CD/MP3 radio, Mud and Snow tyres, electric heated door mirrors, central locking with remote control and rear head restraints.