REVIEW DATE: 20 Sep 2007
We've seen an all wheel drive Panda before, but the latest one is a good deal more sophisticated than its appealing predecessor. Andy Enright reports
For most people, a bleak, windswept and snowy mountain pass at 5,000 feet above sea level isn't their idea of a perfect holiday destination. A roaring log fire and a warming meal could alleviate this to a certain extent, but when home for the season is a Fiat Panda 4x4 and the evening's hearty fare is a granola bar and a can of French beer that's slowly warmed over a hexamine burner to prevent it refreezing, it takes a certain Shackletonesque spirit to see the appeal.
Being a true ski bum, my friend wasn't residing in the latest version of Fiat's all wheel drive Panda. This was the original square box, rescued from a breaker's yard for £300 and which resolutely refused to die despite most of its constituent parts appearing to fly in close formation rather than be bolted securely together. This was a car that, despite being rammed by a snowplough, buried in an avalanche, and suffering a fire in the cabin caused by a combination of naked flames and excess Kronenbourg, would always start first time and never once failed to extract itself from any sticky situation. Small wonder that a whole generation of ex-owners still have a soft spot for the Fiat Panda 4x4.
Reprising the theme is a tricky task. The latest Panda, while gathering rave reviews for its equipment, styling, and big car feel, has become a far more sophisticated beast than the spartan original. Can it carry off the same cheeky charm or does it attempt to woo a different sector of the market? The 4x4 version of the latest car is, when inflation is taken into account, no more expensive than the original version. It boasts a raised ride height, but Fiat have thankfully been conservative with the lifestyle addenda. It would have been easy to plaster it with bull bars, auxiliary roof lights and chromed steps, but the overall effect is subtle and just the right side of utilitarian.
The market for this type of vehicle is one that's currently been invaded by a whole slew of 'faux-by-fours' - those rather puzzling vehicles like the Rover Streetwise, the Citroen C2 XTR and the Volkswagen Polo Dune that look as if they'll clamber up a hillside but boast nothing in the way of off-road aptitude, their underlying front-wheel drive mechanicals being identical to their humbler supermini siblings. Try to extricate one of these from a nine-foot deep snowdrift and you'll need to have ticked the options box marked 'Tow Rope and Land Rover Defender Accessory Pack'. With this Fiat, it's a different story.
"A whole generation of ex-owners still have a soft spot for the Fiat Panda 4x4"
A viscous coupling mounted on the centre differential directs a percentage of drive to the rear tyres when the front pair start scrabbling for traction and the Panda 4x4 has a surprisingly amount of ability on low friction surfaces. There are no buttons to press or levers to pull. The four-wheel drive system cuts in when necessary and butts out when not required. The addition of a propshaft heading aft hasn't done the Panda too many favours when it comes to interior space, although the longitudinal tie-rod rear suspension that's been specially developed for this variant is compact. The ride height is just enough to give the Panda some genuine utility without being so extreme that adventurous drivers are tempted to push the Panda beyond its capabilities. Buyers looking to use the off road performance extensively should look at uprating the tyres to a proper crossover tyre capable of offering even more grip, albeit at the expense of on-road refinement.
Equipment levels are loosely based on the Dynamic trim level in the regular Panda line up and include anti lock brakes with remote central locking, twin airbags, electric front windows and body coloured bumpers. There's also Fiat's Dualdrive steering which takes much of the effort out of low-speed manoeuvring, a set of roof bars, alloy wheels and front foglights thrown in. A radio/CD player and a split/folding rear seat also make living with the Panda 4x4 that little bit easier. Some diehards may see the exclusion of cooking facilities, a ski waxing bench and an inflatable mattress as glaring omissions. For those of you who require a more stylish 4x4 and a few more gadgets, the Panda Cross may be more up your street. This version retains the four-wheel drive and adds chunky side protection strips, roof bars, 15-inch alloy wheels and round light units front and rear. Inside the equipment list boasts air-conditioning, an MP3-comaptible stereo with steering wheel controls and electric power steering. It also features a different engine in the shape of a 1.3 16v Multijet turbodiesel, producing 70bhp and an impressive torque of 145Nm at just 1,500rpm.
Fiat have gone to great lengths to instil a big car feel in the Panda and the amount of soundproofing pays dividends. Fiat claim the Panda is the only car in its class to have 99 per cent of its interior surface lined, and this certainly helps both the perception of quality and noise suppression. The Panda will pull from low speeds cleanly and the gearshift is probably the best in the citycar class. The clutch feels like a well-engineered item as well, being progressive in its action, making stop/go progress easy to manage. The 'City' button takes all the weight out of the steering system and makes three point turns an exercise in effortless wheel twirling.
Fiat seem determined to prove that the latest Panda 4x4 is at least as capable as the indestructible original. Even my friend was impressed to hear that two had managed to clamber all the way up to Everest base camp at nearly 17,000 feet above sea level. Give the Panda 4x4 a decade and he'll no doubt be in the market for one. The rest of you should be a little less circumspect.
The results below show the top PANDA deals on buyacar
|Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir  4X4 5dr hatchback|
|Price £12,639||Save £1,311|
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|Fiat Panda 1.3 Multijet Trekking 5dr diesel hatchback|
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|Fiat Panda 1.2 Eleganza 5dr Auto hatchback|
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|For PANDA 4x4|
|OVERALL||6.9 OUT OF 10|
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