LAST summer my friend Ron lent me his car. With his wife Susie, they left their home in Aberdeen a few years ago and now run a lovely B&B in Barga in the Tuscan hills north of Pisa.
We were there for a few days and Ron had recommended a splendid family restaurant in the hills which did a superb local lunch. So Ron handed me the keys to his pride and joy – an elderly, bruised, battered and very Italian four wheel drive Fiat Panda. He swore by it – and rarely at it – because it was one of the most reliable cars he’d ever had, whatever the conditions on his local mountain roads.
True enough, it took us to our hilltop diner, admittedly with a few groans and creaks along the way, and used hardly any of the grossly overpriced local Italian petrol. A couple of months later, I got a distressing e-mail from Ron. A neighbour had parked their car up the hill from his house, forgot to put on the handbrake and it had rolled down the hill crushing Ron’s Fiat into a wall. It looked terminal and Ron was distraught.
Two weeks later, another e-mail arrived. A local garage had waved its magic wand and the Fiat was back on the road, better than ever. The point of the story is that the little Panda may look fragile, but it has a strong heart.
I’m pleased to say that the latest version of the Panda 4x4 which is arriving in showrooms now appears to have the same understated ability of Ron’s early runabout. The diminutive four-wheel-drive machine first appeared 29 years ago and was met with a wide range of sniggers and scoffs from a sceptical market. How could this wee Italian really do anything serious away from the asphalt? Since then, it has not only proved it can do it, but also given some of the more “serious” off-roaders a good run for their money.
I was keen to find out if the latest version was up to the standard set by its predecessors so I was delighted that the nice people from Fiat had taken over a corner of Stoneleigh Park in the English Midlands which was home to the Royal Show until four years ago. There they had laid out a very serious off-road course which, in sub-zero temperatures, had thick frozen mud and demanding climbs and drops.
It was more challenging than some of the courses I’ve tackled in much beefier machinery, yet the wee Panda took it all in its stride without a murmur or complaint, and the only concession to the conditions was a set of winter tyres. It was very impressive, and while few of them will ever have to tackle anything quite so challenging, it is reassuring that they are up to the task and will certainly give greater reassurance on snowy or icy winter roads.
The permanent 4x4 system is completely automatic and transfers power where it’s needed. Under normal dry conditions, 98 per cent of the power goes to the front wheels, but if sensors detect slippage, that can be altered to up to a 50/50 split between front and rear for maximum traction and grip. Offroad, that means extra confidence in tricky conditions while on the road it returns reassuring security in the wet.
It represents remarkable value, with a starting price of just under £14,000 for the 85hp petrol TwinAir, and for another £1,000 you can scale up to the more powerful 1.3-litre MultiJet diesel. For the first time, Fiat have introduced a new compromise model, the Panda Trekking, which it claims is the world’s first City Utility Vehicle. It has the 4x4’s raised ride height but has only front-wheel drive with a sophisticated traction control system to improve its ability on dodgy or slippery surfaces and is £1,500 less than the 4x4.
Both new versions are slightly bigger than the standard hatchback, and inside the space seems generous for what is a small car with one of the largest boot spaces in its class. Fiat expects to sell around 6,000 Pandas this year, and in this specialist offroad area, it believes about 500 of them will be 4x4s or Trekkings. I’m sure that once Ron’s elderly specimen finally gives up the ghost, it’ll be replaced by this latest, highly impressive baby. And I’ll be very happy to borrow that one too.
CAR Fiat Panda 1.3 Multijet 75hp 4x4
PRICE £14,950 (£15,600 as tested)
PERFORMANCE Max speed 99mph; 0-60mph 14.5secs
MPG (combined) 60
CO2 EMISSIONS 125g/km