The Fiat Panda 4x4 has a real go-anywhere, do-anything feel about it. A light clutch, raised suspension and fairly impressive traction even with a tiny TwinAir engine, make it genuinely feel like a capable off-road vehicle.
Fiat has been making some excellent cars of late, with the 500 filling the streets of just about every city the world over. The Panda 4x4 however, having negotiated the streets of London for a week now, feels even better suited to urban driving than the 500.
Why is this? Well unlike most of the urban 4x4-ing you see on the streets of Chelsea, the Panda 4x4 with its compact 3686mm x 1882mm x 1605mm size, can squeeze through any gap. It also eats speedbumps for breakfast and has just enough go at traffic lights for it not to feel you're slowing everyone else down.
This is helped by excellent visibility and a raised driving position. We found wiggling through Piccadilly Circus for example, normally a 4x4's worst nightmare, extremely easy. The Panda has massive wing mirrors and a flat rear window, so you really can't miss anything.
This ingenious design is continued throughout the car's interior. The rear seats, for example, can slide so far forward that you can fit pretty much anything into the boot, while fitting your kids in the back. Slide the seats all the way back in the opposite direction and you have space for four adults without any problems.
The front driver's seat also has a height adjustment, which for the shorter driver is especially handy in adding to that raised feeling a 4x4 gives. The Panda's five-door layout is brilliant, and although this is a small car, the space available in the back is very impressive.
Where the 4x4's design fails is in its interior. The 500 and Punto all give you the illusion that they are much more expensive cars. In the 4x4 however things just aren't quite the same. It's not that it misses the mark as such, just that it feels more Ikea than Habitat.
The whole thing has this sort of soft-edged square motif going on. Everything from the temperature controls, to speaker grilles and even the speedometer are square. It just won't age as well as Fiat's other cars.
What it does do however is feel nicely stripped back and easy to clean. Should you be using the Panda 4x4 as a bit of a workhorse, there are so few nooks and crannies that an afternoon with a hoover would set it back to as-new standards.
One thing we do like, is the Panda logo splattered all over the plastic bodywork on the door interiors. It looks cool.
To 4x4 or not to 4x4?
The Panda 4x4 comes in two different forms, neither of which is technically a 4x4 at all. One, the Trekking model, looks like the 4x4 but puts all its power through the front wheels. The other, which we reviewed here, features a 875cc TwinAir turbo engine, with 85hp to play with and a 12.1 second 0-62mph time.
The trick though, is in its electronic locking differential. Hitting a small button next to the gear stick, marked ELD, will trigger the 4x4's party piece. The differential essentially works out grip levels between each wheel and then provides the right amount of power between front and back wheels to get the maximum grip from the car. Being able to switch it off means that in normal urban driving you can save on tyre wear and get increased fuel efficiency, which is no bad thing.
As for how it works, hitting the ELD tightens up the 4x4's performance no end. While we are yet to compare it to the likes of a Range Rover or any other serious off-road vehicle, we think country types will be impressed with just how much grip the car has. A 15cm ground clearance doesn't hurt either.
The best thing is that Fiat's new TwinAir engines are just so strong we can see the 4x4 becoming a real workhorse of a vehicle, while being perfectly suited to twisty hilly mountain roads as well as negotiating small mountain towns on the Continent.
Don't forget either that the car promises a combined cycle of 57.6 mpg, which is incredibly impressive for an off-roader. In fact, the value for money you are getting with the Panda 4x4 is fairly astonishing.
Nice to drive?
We already mentioned the excellent visibility from the 4x4, but how about the driving itself? First, the steering is incredibly light. You don't get a huge amount of feedback from the road and switching on city mode, which basically lightens the steering and worsens that lack of feeling.
For driving about the city though, this is brilliant, as you can whizz about in the 4x4 with a full set of kids, dogs and everything else without having to worry too much about turning the wheel. The clutch and gearbox are exceptionally easy to use, feeling almost impossible to get wrong. Stalling this thing would be a challenge.
Nice grippy mud and snow tyres help with the whole driving experience, which never feels overly loose or bouncy despite the car's small and tall approach to design. Body roll is also kept to a minimum, so you don't feel you'll topple over on roundabouts.
The TwinAir engine is a touch noisy, but settles down enough on motorways for it not to be a huge issue. It is a revvy little thing and does give the Panda 4x4 quite a characterful sound. However we the slightly more fuel-efficient and cheaper 1.3-litre MultiJet 2 turbo diesel might be a better option. Don't forget though, the TwinAir engine saves on road tax.
The Panda 4x4 strikes us as the ultimate Panda. Really you will be considering the Panda because of its functionality, not its looks. So if ease of use is what you are all about, the 4x4 strikes us as an even better proposition.
Just being able to zip over speed bumps is handy enough as it is, while the grip on the hills and out in the countryside as well as that increased ride hight makes driving easier to manage. You can still fit the whole family in the Panda 4x4 and it still has the simple BlueandMe USB audio system to keep them entertained.
For around £14,000 you are getting the ultimate functional family car. Wait a year or two, pick one up second hand and then you could run this thing into the ground, saving some cash and buying yourself a fun runabout for the weekends.
This is an excellent car, which defines motoring value, brings a touch of fun and is so easy to drive that it will make even the noisiest of road trips just a bit more relaxing.