Meet the cute, chunky and remarkably capable new Fiat Panda Cross.
The Fiat Panda has been with us since 1980 and is now into its third generation. Young in Doctor Who terms, but legendary in the motor industry.
The first Panda 4×4 was launched in 1983 to great acclaim, winning Top Gear magazine’s ‘SUV of the Year’ award in 2012.
Now the range-topping Panda Cross moves the car’s off-road capabilities up a level.
It may just look like a more rugged, jacked-up version of the Panda 4×4, but believe me, there’s more to the Panda Cross than meets the eye.
Recognisable by its silver skid plates, front and rear, increased ground clearance, protective body mouldings, 15-inch alloy wheels shod with all-season 185/65R15 mud and snow tyres, and chunky new bumper and light clusters, the Cross is also the cleverest Panda yet.
Slip inside the car and the next clue to the car’s versatility is just belowthe gear lever where the new Terrain Control drive selector is conveniently located.
There are three modes – Auto, Off-Road and Hill Descent Control.
Auto mode – this is where most Panda owners will stay, automatically distributing the power between the front and rear without requiring any input from the driver. In fact, on most roads the Panda Cross will spend most of its time in front-wheel-drive, but as soon as a loss of traction is detected it will redistribute the engine torque between axles in just a tenth of a second.
Off-Road mode – the all-wheel drive function is permanently activated up to 30 mph – ideal for snow, ice, gravel and mud.
Hill Descent Control (HDC) – perfect for tricky downhill sections off-road. All you have to do is steer.
It all sounds too good to be true, but it works. I drove the Panda over two routes – one ‘soft-road’ wooded country area with grass and mud banks, then a course through a quarry with challenging up and downhill sections, plenty of water and serious undulations.
I’m no off-road expert, but I soon good the hang of both courses because the Panda Cross gives you the confidence to tackle most terrain, whether it’s ‘slowly does it’ tricky terrain or steep hills which require big revs for ascent.
Thanks to its lightweight body, the Panda Cross is a mountain goat of a car, well able to tackle terrain which may bog down bigger SUVs.
Powered by uprated versions of the perky 1.3 MultiJet II diesel and 0.9 TwinAir turbo petrol engines, now with 80hp and 90hp respectively, the Panda is no slouch either.
I like the TwinAir engine, but I found the six-speed gearbox had to be worked quite hard in everyday driving, so I’d choose the slightly more relaxed 1.3 diesel with 5-speed gearbox.
That said, the TwinAir’s gearbox has a shortened first gear to enable the car to crawl while the engine is idling – a useful feature in challenging off-road conditions.
The 0.9-litre TwinAir manages 0-62 mph in 12 seconds, has a top speed of 104mph and returns a claimed 57.6 mpg, while the 1.3-litre MultiJet II reaches 62mph in 14.3 seconds, has a top speed of 99mph and is capable of 60.1 mpg.
Inside, the Panda Cross is full of hard-wearing plastics, while the cloth seats are also practical and very comfortable, even if the driving position is a little high.
The instrumentation is basic and the non-DAB sound system is disappointing, while rear legroom is challenging and boot space average.
The car drives well in the city and on fast open roads with light, responsive steering and a decent ride, though refinement is not top of the class.
Verdict: The new Fiat Panda Cross combines the efficiency and practicality of an everyday city car with genuine off-road capability. City chic one minute, mountain goat the next – it’s a remarkable little car.
The 0.9 TwinAir petrol starts at £15,945 and the 1.3 MultJjet diesel at £16,945. With extras the cars I drove cost £17,050 for the 0.9 TwinAir (in white) and£18,510 for the 1.3 MultiJet (Tropicalia Yellow).