It’s easy to be sceptical about the new Fiat Panda 4x4. The raised ride height, the slap-on plastic body addenda, the new badge – surely it’s just a supermini dressed up as a 4x4?
Which is what I was thinking as we turned off the asphalt and clawed our way up a Tuscan hillside covered in slippery flint and wet pine needles. As we neared the peak and the Panda’s diff-mounted viscous coupling instructed the rear tyres to individually scrabble for traction, any doubts about its abilities vanished. This is no Rover Streetwise or VW Polo Dune – this is the real deal. A proper off-roader for those who don’t want a full-size 4x4 on their drive (and their neighbour’s), yet need the grip and ability of all-wheel drive.
Fiat has stuck with the formula that has bagged its Panda the European Car of the Year award, so all of the affable character that we fell for originally has remained intact. You perch upon a high seat, stirring a sweet-shifting console-mounted gearlever and wielding light, if rather lifeless, steering. The dash and centre console are screwed together with Bavarian diligence and the styling department hasn’t overdone it with the body cladding.
The Panda’s slightly cramped cabin isn’t made any smaller with the addition of the four-wheel-drive hardware underneath, including all-new longitudinal tie-rod rear suspension. And the aptly-named Fire engine suits the Panda’s character, with its instant throttle response and a scaled-down Ferrari-style low-rev growl.
Beginning next year, the Panda 4x4 will be sold in the UK in the higher-spec Climbing trim we tested – anti-lock brakes, dual front airbags, foglights and electric front windows come standard and the 60bhp, 1.2-litre petrol is the sole engine option.
Just like the original version, this four-wheel-drive Panda is utility vehicle in the best sense: it’s affordable, practical and unpretentious.