Fiat Panda 4×4 proves entertaining

Some cars are in-your-face aggressive, others are meekly mild. A few – a very few – just make you want to pick them up and cuddle them.

Fiat’s small, cherubically mischievous Panda 4×4 is definitely in the last camp. Not only because it’s the smallest off-roader on the market, but also because it’s the cheapest, coming home at £9195 on the road.Which naturally begs a couple of questions. For instance, is this just another cobbled-together tin box? And can it do the business off road?

Let’s get the quality issue out of the way first. Everything is tidily finished and screwed together properly. The doors thud closed, the test car’s red metallic paintwork puts a few much more expensive motors to shame and on the move, there’s nary a squeak or rattle. Apart from a few lightweight interior bits and switchgear short on Swiss-watch precision, the Panda shows no sign of being built down to a price.And it’s upbeat all the way.

The cute nose, bobbed tail and high stance might hint that the Panda is the outcome of night moves between a people carrier and a Smart city car, but most people smile when they first see it. And the bright cabin’s mix of red cloth and funky-shaped plastics seems positively designed to cheer you up on a gloomy day.

Fire engineMotivation comes from Fiat’s long-serving FIRE 1.2 petrol powerplant. It’s a revvy little thing, encouraged to spin by low overall gearing – 80mph racks up a very busy 4200revs in fifth – albeit a fairly civilised one.

Sixty ponies have to contend with front-biased permanent 4wd, so although the Panda tips the scales at just 980kg its performance is lukewarm; 60mph comes up in around 16sec and long main road hills grind it down. Yet browsing in its more natural habitat of lanes and A-roads the Panda is nippy enough. Quiet, too (though tyre rumble can be a pain), and certainly economical – we found 42.5mpg over very mixed going.

Better than that, it’s a pleasant thing to drive. Light control efforts are topped off by a particularly easy clutch and gearshift, while electrically-powered steering brings a city mode for minimum-effort wheel-twirling while parking. Views are good and the ride, though always bobbly, isn’t harsh.

Practically speakingFiat organises the five-door shell very well. Depending on how you specify the rear seat the accommodation swallows five or four adults, with those in the back keeping modest kneeroom. The unexpectedly comfy front chairs include variable height for the driver which, together with steering rake adjustment, lets most sizes get settled behind the wheel. Minus points go to the bouncy and awkwardly-placed throttle, to the wide centre console (which consistently rubs your left leg up the wrong way) and to the lack of oddment stowage. And while ventilation is good, we’d recommend adding aircon (£500 from the short options list) for maximum coolth on hot summer days.Naturally there’s a limit to how much you can squeeze into (or out of) a pint pot, and in the Panda’s case boot space takes a hit. With the rear seats up there’s just room or a 25kg mineral supplement bag.

Off road

Now here’s another surprise. The Panda has a wheel right out at each corner, keeps its vital bits tucked out of the way, has short overhangs, packs a sumpguard and has a simple, self-sorting driveline which shunts drive to the rear tyres as the front ones lose grip. The result – at least on dry going – is tenacity and the ability to handle lumpy terrain, all the while maintaining a reasonably comfortable ride.

Endnote

Accept that the Panda is not built for loads or motorways, and you’ll find a entertaining little car, ideal as second-vehicle transport in areas where the roads are steep, narrow and slippery in winter. Or it’ll make an economical runabout for vets or farmers to buzz to the field in all but the direst of conditions.