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It has a unique mix of city car and small SUV traits, but how much rugged capability does Fiat's off-road supermini really have - and is it the best of its kind?

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We love the Fiat Panda 4x4. It’s no secret. This isn’t the first time the Panda has been offered with the option and, as long as there remains a plethora of dusty roads in Mediterranean countries and snowy ones on higher ground, we suspect it won’t be the last. 

The standard Fiat Panda is as spacious, well priced and well equipped as its rivals, it drives in a way that provides a modicum of interest to enthusiasts and, in Panda TwinAir form, it has an interesting and characterful – if not as efficient as hoped – two-cylinder engine.

The Panda 4x4 was conceived to deal with Alpine snow

Perhaps it’s the design. Maybe it’s the 'squircles'. Perhaps it’s just that Fiat, possibly more than any other car maker, really understands that a city car is meant to be fun. It’s not all subjective, mind. And, with this variant, the Panda can add something else to its repertoire: four-wheel drive. 

There are plenty of fine city cars out there – the latest triumvirate from the Volkswagen Group among them (Volkswagen Up, Skoda Citigo and Seat Mii) – but still, there’s something about the Panda that manages to warm our hearts even in that company.

In 4x4 form it's even more engaging and, more importantly, one of the few cars of its size and class that's so equipped. Rivals are few and far between, with only the Dacia Duster, Suzuki SX4, Vauxhall Adam Rocks and Fiat 500X presenting themselves as genuine alternatives. 

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With just 150mm of ground clearance the Panda 4x4 isn't built for going far off road – it's not a Jeep or Land Rover, after all. Instead, it's best to think of it as a city car with muddy field-crossing capability. However, if it is more hardcore off-roading you are looking to do in a Panda, then the Panda Cross may very well be the answer, with its raised ride heights and bumpers.

Nevertheless, we’ve enjoyed 4x4 Pandas before. Will we this time?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Fiat Panda 4x4 rear lights
Tinted rear glass is a cost option

The new Fiat Panda 4x4 has just the right amount of visual gumption to enhance the city car’s appeal. It’s still cute, but with just a hint of purpose to it – a bit like an angry jelly baby.

In addition to the bodywork addenda, which includes skid plates beneath the body, ride height is raised by 50mm over the standard Fiat Panda.

The plastic side strips probably don't offer much protection

Most of the functional hardware remains the same as the regular Panda’s. There are MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam at the rear, but the 4x4 comes with the choice of just two engines.

There’s a 0.9-litre Panda TwinAir petrol unit and the 1.3-litre MultiJet, which features in both the Panda 4x4 and the Cross. Both of these, appropriately, make their maximum torque below 2000rpm, whereas the previous 1.2 petrol unit wanted spinning at 3000rpm to deliver its torque, and then only produced 75lb ft of it.

What sets this Fiat Panda apart from its siblings, though, is not the lack of the least torquey engine or the mildly increased ride height, but the development of the four-wheel drive system from the previous Panda 4x4.

It uses a viscous coupling to divert power to the rear in the event of slip between the front and rear axles, although some 98 percent of power is sent to the fronts in normal driving.

There’s also an electronic differential lock, of sorts. It’s not a mechanical diff at all, but an extension of the traction control system which, by way of an applied brake, prevents power from being spun away by a lightly loaded wheel while its axle partner is denied any torque, and preloads the viscous drive system with hydraulic pressure for quicker response. The Panda Cross is of a similar ilk just with a higher ride height making green-laning possible.

Petrol versions of Fiat's 4x4 get a six-speed box with a very short bottom gear, to boost off-road capabilities, but diesel models get a conventional five-speed unit.

INTERIOR

Fiat Panda 4x4 dashboard
The Panda's driving position is particularly upright

The Fiat Panda 4x4 has distilled four-wheel drive flavour packed into it like an SUV stock cube. The little Fiat has a cabin full of infectious charm and covered in facsimiles of the Panda’s trademark ‘squircle’ design motif.

The round-cornered squares are all over the place: on the instruments, the steering wheel boss, the speaker grilles, the HVAC controls. They’re a cute point of difference of just the sort that a small car needs in order to worm its way into your affections.

I like 'squircles' but there's at least one too many

Underneath that obvious colour and character, though, the substance is a little less appealing.

You’ll find rough, flimsy plastics without prying too hard with your fingertips, as well as the odd bit of sharp-edged or mismatched trim. And – because this is a city car on stilts, remember – you won’t find space in abundance.

Even by A-segment standards, the Panda isn’t that roomy. Larger drivers might be able to feel the extremities of the footwell with their knees and the B-pillar close to their shoulder.

Headroom is generous, though, and while the boot is too small for typical SUV paraphernalia such as dog boxes and the like, the split-fold rear seats make up for some of the practicality shortfall. They should be standard fit, though, and not the £100 option they are.

A range of interior finishes is available but pick the sand-coloured cloth on the seats and olive green fascia to deliver the kind of look that young rural socialites will approve of as heartily as their trendy Hunter wellies and quilted Barbour jackets.

The Panda 4x4's equipment levels aren't that bad either, with luxuries such as air conditioning, electrically adjustable and heated wing mirrors, front foglights and Fiat's Uconnect infotainment system with Bluetooth and USB connectivity. While those pining for the more rugged Panda Cross won't feel shortchanged either, as it comes with LED day-running-lights, silver roof bars, three off-road modes, mud and snow tyres, plus climate control all as standard.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Fiat Panda 4x4 rear cornering
The Panda 4x4 can be had with either a 0.9-litre petrol or a 1.3-litre diesel engine

The diminutive Fiat 4x4 and Cross are offered with a choice of two powertrains: a 0.9-lire TwinAir Turbo petrol coupled to a six-speed manual gearbox or a 1.3-litre MultiJet diesel with a five-speed manual gearbox.

Fiat's TwinAir engine is a distinctive and characterful unit. It chunters and shimmies away lightly at idle, in a way that seems at once old-fashioned and, in a downsized sense, modern. There is no other automotive combustion engine like it that we know of, and few that raise a smile so effortlessly.

The Panda understeers quite heavily but body roll isn't too bad

The first thing to do once that offbeat idle is established is disable the Fiat Fiat Panda's Eco mode.

This is a separate program for the ECU that limits engine power to 78bhp and torque to 74lb ft.

It probably improves fuel economy and CO2 for the NEDC economy test; the car defaults to it when you start up, remember. But in practice, the driving experience is much the worse with it engaged.

With it on, the Panda 4x4 is troublingly slow, but also bothersome in the unevenness of its power delivery; it doesn't take much of an incline to make a gearchange absolutely necessary, for example. Off road, it would be hopeless. With Eco off, though, that extra mid-range torque comes like manna from heaven. It makes the car so much more flexible and easy to drive and makes you, in turn, begin to see the sense in substituting four cylinders for two.

It is difficult to quantify the superiority of Fiat's TwinAir engine over an equivalent four-pot in recorded numbers. When we road tested the regular 1.2-litre Panda, it produced almost identical performance figures and marginally better economy.

Despite this, considering the extra weight and unaerodynamic height of the 4x4 relative to the standard Panda, as well as its dual-purpose rough-stuff usability and all that combustive charm, we say the TwinAir still deserves considerable credit.

Those wanting the frugality and low-down pulling power of a diesel will be gratified to hear that the MultiJet offering in the Fiat is both strong and workmanlike. Unlike the TwinAir, however, it's only offered with a five-speed manual gearbox, which has a short fifth gear.

Consequently, it's noisier than the TwinAir at motorway speeds. Out of the two engines the Panda TwinAir is probably the one to go for as it'll be cheaper to buy and it has bags more character. That makes it a natural fit for the Panda 4x4.

RIDE & HANDLING

Fiat Panda 4x4 cornering
There's plenty of body movement in corners, but grip is decent

The latest two-wheel-drive Fiat Fiat Panda has a sophistication to its ride that previous Pandas – fun though they were – were lacking. It’s arguable that some of the brio of past Pandas has been lost in the translation to a feeling of greater maturity.

But, fortunately, Fiat has kept it as an easy-going, fun-to-drive companion because of its general smallness and the keenness of its engine, if not for any objective keen-handling traits. It’s agile, yes, but only because it doesn’t weigh very much, not because it has been designed to feel that way.

You can hustle the Panda around corners fairly quickly

The same is true of this Panda 4x4. It rides entirely acceptably, with the extra sidewall in the tyres and increase in suspension height seemingly compensating for the ride-worsening increase in unsprung mass.

Meanwhile, because for the vast majority of the time the Panda is a front-wheel-drive car, its steering and handling traits seem pretty unchanged. There’s more roll than in a standard Panda, of course, and the steering isn’t the sharpest around the straight-ahead, but it’s easy to forgive those things or not even notice them at all.

The 4x4 is higher and more capable than a regular Panda but feels no less of a Panda for it. A lot of that, we suspect, is down to the fact that this isn’t a particularly heavy car. Stick taller springs and softened rates on a heavy-bodied car and it’ll lose control of its body movements over undulating surfaces. The Panda doesn’t suffer to the same degree.

Refinement levels are pretty good – not a match for a Volkswagen Up’s, but good enough. Wind and road noise, despite the bigger tyres, are kept in reasonable check, and the increase in height seems to have no adverse effect on stability. Nor have they upset the general handling bias, which errs towards understeer.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Fiat Panda 4x4
It's now 30 years since the introduction of the Fiat Panda 4x4

Despite having been around for three decades, the Fiat Panda 4x4 remains something of a novelty in the UK. There are only four genuine competitors to consider: Suzuki’s SX4 and the new Dacia Duster along side the Vauxhall Adam Rocks and the Fiat 500X.

The Duster is predictably cheaper with a petrol engine (although poorly equipped), while the SX4 and Adam measures up on the kit list but is more expensive, while the 500X is generally more expensive.

TomTom prep, side airbags and a spare wheel are worthwhile options

Fiat will argue that its TwinAir engine is offering a considerably more efficient experience than its closest competitors’ . Certainly, at 114g/km of CO2, it is less expensive to tax, and with 18,000-mile service intervals it is potentially cheaper to run, too.

However, the engine’s main limitation is well known: the combined economy claim of 57.6mpg is all but unattainable. Our gentle touring run yielded only 44.2mpg, and yes, that was in Eco mode. By the time we came to give the Panda back, its average had fallen to just 37.2mpg – dangerously close to the kind of figure one might conceivably expect from a petrol engine with two more cylinders. But a day-to-day average of 40mpg would be possible – far from exceptional, but perfectly acceptable.

Fiat claims that the 1.3-litre diesel will return in the region of 60.1mpg - higher than the aforementioned Duster, in diesel form, which will average 56.5mpg. Again, in the real world, that may prove somewhat difficult to achieve.

It most likely will, however, be easier to attain higher economy figures in diesel versions of the Panda 4x4 than in the Panda TwinAir.

 

VERDICT

4 star Fiat Panda 4x4
A loveable 4x4 supermini that trades space for style and charm

The Fiat Panda 4x4’s mix of city car and SUV traits remains as unique as ever. This version adds expertly judged style to the list, making a truly distinctive car all the more appealing, while the characterful TwinAir engine serves to make the Panda even more quirky, with the Panda Cross quirkier still.

However, the city car and the SUV don’t meet exactly in the middle of the void between them where the Panda 4x4 sits; this is much more a steroidal supermini than shrunken mud plugger. It’s a bit of fun, not a proper utility machine.

We'd like the TwinAir to be more economical in the real world

Understand that and you’re much less likely to be disappointed by its limitations on practicality and true off-road capability. Once that penny drops, though, you can’t fail to ‘get’ this perky little machine.

For us, it misses out on a class-leading position simply because there are more usable options for the same money. It's a shame that some features, such as split-folding rear seats and side airbags, aren't standard in the Fiat Panda 4x4 as well.

But if you’re in a position to trade a bit of worthiness for amusement value in your winterproof, rough-and-tumble second car, we warmly suggest you fill your designer Wellington boots.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Fiat Panda 4x4 First drives