REVIEW DATE: 03 Sep 2008
Fiat's Panda can offer an affordable route into 4x4 ownership. You just have to make it Cross. Steve Walker reports.
What happens when a panda gets cross? It's a question to which only a few unfortunate souls know the answer, the elusive black and while bear not being a creature known for the width of its vicious streak. Like its furry namesake, the Fiat Panda citycar operates at the cute end of the spectrum and isn't usually one for displaying much aggression of any kind. One exception is the Panda Cross. It's a Fiat Panda which, as the name might suggest, has a little bit more bite.
In this instance, we can take 'Cross' to be short for crossover or cross-purpose rather than a reference to anger or aggression. The Panda Cross is another in the growing group of citycars and superminis that are available with off-road modifications. Fiat's take on the theme involves the usual addition of styling accessories designed to inject a little more attitude into the car's appearance but unlike the majority of these fake-4x4s, the Panda Cross does have all-wheel-drive. This instantly gives the Fiat some credibility in an area of the market that isn't exactly swimming in the stuff.
4x4 Fiat Pandas are nothing new. The original Panda was available with four-driven wheels for those who regularly encountered slippery road conditions or needed to cross mild off-road terrain. Then, when the latest model arrived, Fiat revisited the Panda 4x4, offering it with the 1.2-litre petrol engine. The Panda Cross is a step on from that car and comes powered by a meatier 1.3-litre Multijet diesel engine but using the same permanent four-wheel drive system. It uses a viscous coupling that directs power rearward when the front tyres come unstuck and has an electronic differential lock to maximise traction when the going gets really slippery.
The 1.3-litre Multijet engine is one of the best compact diesels on the market. Its 70bhp and 145Nm of torque from 1,500rpm should endow the compact Panda with reasonable pulling power from low speeds but a 0-60mph time of 18s is positively glacial. The Panda Cross is carrying 155kg of extra weight compared to a front-wheel-drive Panda with the same engine and that's a lot in a car tipping the scales at 1,090kg in total. The Panda Cross will be at the bottom of the food chain with the mopeds and bicycles when it comes to racing away from the traffic lights but when the snows come, it'll be plodding onwards long after other vehicles have slithered to a halt.
"The Panda's cabin is very well finished with a good deal of space"
Customers intent on a four-wheel drive Fiat Panda can take one of two routes. The Panda 4x4 looks like a conventional Panda that's simply sits a little bit higher, while the Cross comes with all manner of extras. At the front, the square headlamps of the standard car are converted to round ones by the plastic bumper that reaches up and encircles them. A second set of lights juts forward from the main units and is also integrated into the bumper. The sides feature protective plastic cladding that curls around the wheelarches and the rear light clusters are also separated out into individual round lights that are also encased in plastic. Roof rails and under body protection in the same contrasting colour as the side cladding complete a look which is substantially different from the basic Fiat Panda models.
In general, the Panda's cabin is very well finished with a good deal of space but headroom isn't particularly generous. Space in the back of the Panda is a mixed bag, the car being wider and taller than many rivals but without a great deal of legroom. Still, it will be fine for kids and Fiat can only do so much with a car that measures just 3.54m from nose to tail. Luggage space is surprisingly good. The hatchback is both wide and tall and there's no intrusion from the rear light clusters, although the rear wheel arches limit ultimate carrying capacity somewhat.
The Panda Cross sits at the top of the Fiat Panda line up and well it might. The car includes the Panda's crown jewels in the shape of its 4x4 transmission and 1.3-litre Multijet engine. Then it piles on all that styling addenda and a list of equipment that's as long as any model in the range. The Cross is the only Panda to feature ESP stability control as standard, giving the car even greater safety benefits over and above the superior traction from its all-wheel drive mechanicals. The system also includes a hill holder function and other electronic safety nets to help avoid the worst coming to the worst. There are also twin front airbags, pretensioner front seatbelts and anti-submarining seats. Other equipment includes the City button that lightens the steering, air conditioning, a CD stereo, remote central locking and 15" alloy wheels.
The market for small cars with off-roader overtones is fairly well populated with Peugeot, Volkswagen and Citroen all offering variations on the theme. If you actually want all-wheel drive to go with your big bumpers and raised suspension, however, your choices become a whole lot more limited. Because it actually has 4x4 mechanicals, the Panda Cross gains extra credibility over it's the front-wheel-drive competition. It could also pinch sales from cars at the smallest end of the 4x4 spectrum with its comparatively low pricing.
Running a Panda Cross is unlikely to prove too much of a hardship. The 54.3mpg combined fuel economy and 136g/km emissions are enough to make a mockery of those who indiscriminately group all 4x4s into one environmentally unsound package. Insurance in group 3 will also do wonders for the bank balance of Panda Cross owners.
Many car buyers will have a problem paying extra for a small car with off-roader styling cues and scarcely any more ability in the rough stuff than the standard supermini or citycar it's based on. If you like a bit of capability to underpin your vehicle's rugged looks, the Panda Cross could be the answer. With a proper 4x4 system tucked away under its tiny body, it offers extra traction in difficult road conditions and should have the wherewithal to take on the odd wet grass or gravel track excursion.
With its compact diesel engine, the Panda Cross might be slow but it's cheap to run and the styling alterations give it genuine extra attitude. The idea of a 4x4 citycar might seem a strange one at first but to some, the Panda Cross will make perfect sense. The search for a cheaper diesel-engined citycar-based 4x4 is likely to be a fruitless one, so buyers with that kind of criteria will certainly spot its appeal. Even if cost isn't the prime determining factor, there's a good chance that many will like the Panda when it's angry, or at least when it's Cross.
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