What is it?
A pretty hard car to think of a rival to. Put simply, it's a new all-wheel-drive version of our current favourite city car, the Panda. But the Panda 4x4 is unique in a number of ways, chiefly that it's the only car in its segment that can offer four-wheel drive — and it has an off-road pedigree that makes it more SUV than city car.
Visually, the Panda 4x4 is differentiated from the Panda Lounge on which it is based by its chunky body cladding, special 15in alloys, a ride height raised by 47mm and an air intake raised by 700mm. But the changes run much deeper under the skin, and a quick glance at the spec sheet reveals it to be more Land Rover than Panda.
The permanent all-wheel-drive transmission is called 'Torque on Demand'; this fully automatic system features two differentials and an electronically controlled coupling. It sends traction to the front wheels, rear wheels or a combination of both depending on road and grip conditions.
The Panda 4x4 also gets an electronic-locking differential to work with the electronic stability control system below 31mph, proper mud and snow tyres and a shorter first gear for the manual gearbox on the TwinAir version. A new six-speed manual also makes its debut on the Panda 4x4.
To best illustrate that the Panda 4x4 is a car with more in common with small crossover SUVs than city cars it's worth looking at its key off-road stats: the approach, breakover and departure angles are all greater than those on the Mini Countryman and even the Nissan Qashqai.
What is it like?
One of the most complete, characterful and capable city cars we can remember driving. We liked the old Panda 4x4, but is was just too unrefined on the road to be considered usable everyday. But the new one changes all that.
The most striking initial reaction behind the wheel is just how high you sit and how commanding your view of the road is in the Panda 4x4. And when you get going you feel how nicely weighted the steering is, how slick the six-speed manual gearbox is, how willing the 84bhp 0.9-litre TwinAir engine is to be revved, but how quiet it can also be when at motorway speeds — thanks to the sixth forward gear.
The ride quality is a real stand-out feature. It's soft but never wallows, the extra suspension travel absorbing even the most scarred of road surfaces in a relaxed manner. It handles keenly enough, but rather larger amounts of body roll discourage you from driving it like an Italian hire car.
The Panda 4x4 will also be offered with a 74bhp 1.3-litre MultiJet diesel engine from launch. This oil-burning engine feels strong and workmanlike, but it's only available with a five-speed manual gearbox and a top ratio that's quite short makes it quite noisy above 70mph. Of the two engines, the TwinAir is the one to go for; it'll be around £1000 cheaper and has bags more character. It's a natural fit for the Panda 4x4 then.
If the Panda 4x4 is impressive on-road, its performance is even better off-road. We tested it on the off-road proving ground at Fiat Group's famous Balocco compound. Here it handled ascents and descents, low-grip surfaces and obstacles that looked impassable for a car the size of the Panda 4x4. And it did so with as much competence as we remember from testing a Jeep Grand Cherokee over the same course.
Should I buy one?
Yes. The Panda 4x4 is a lot of things; it's the most unique city car out there and arguably now the best and most capable of them all. Indeed, there are cars in classes two higher that the Panda 4x4 could make a case against.
It's got true off-road performance and, crucially, is as good if not better than the standard Panda on-road thanks to the improved suspension and commanding driving position. At an estimated £14,000, it's not cheap next to traditional city cars, but the standard equipment list is extensive and its all-round abilities actually make it seem a real bargain. The people's Land Rover Discovery seems like quite an apt description for it.
Fiat Panda 4x4 TwinAir
Price £14,000 (est); 0-62mph 11.5sec; Top speed 105mph; Economy 61.4mpg; CO2 105g/km; Engine 2 cyls, 875cc, turbocharged petrol; Power 84bhp at 5500rpm; Torque 107lb ft at 1900rpm; Gearbox six-speed manual