This nippy little car proves you don’t have to be a vast macho 4x4 to perform well off-road.
I have a confession. Despite living in the country throughout my whole life, I’m utterly hopeless at off-roading. I’ve got Land Rovers plugged in muddy Wiltshire fields, Range Rovers sunk in raging Scottish rivers, Toyotas beached in Welsh gravel and turned Volvos into impromptu snowmen. I even got a Jeep buried in Saharan sand.
Where I live, it’s something of a badge of masculine honour for chaps to be able to get vehicles through whatever Nature might throw at us. A farmer friend is inordinately proud of the modifications he’s made to his Discovery, and he spends far too much time, over a pint, detailing the types of knobbles on his tyres and clever new shock-absorber adjustments.
However, amid much hilarity, he still slithered about helplessly in his wife’s BMW X5 when it snowed. That’s the thing with off-roading: you really do need the right tool for the job, and for those of us who are bad workmen, that tool has to be very good indeed. Step forward the Fiat Panda 4×4, which may well be the solution to my trekking travails.
Since the early 1980s, Fiat has been bolting four-wheel-drive systems to the tiny Panda, giving it the tippy-toed dexterity of a mountain goat. In the Alps, these untrammelled things are everywhere, bimbling about happily in snow, skinny tyres cutting a path where bigger 4x4s struggle. Unfortunately, those old Pandas also drink fuel as a hoary old cowherd downs schnapps and are as comfort-able as a woodcutter’s cart. The new model, however, has all of the great attributes of the original, but with more comfort and efficiency. It’s cheap, too.
Amazingly, it comes with a two-cylinder, 0.9-litre petrol engine, which hardly seems the ideal thing for pulling a mass up a mountain. But because of the car’s light weight of just over a ton and the standard mud and snow tyres, it will find gluey traction where none seemed to exist and has a very low first gear, which helps to pull it up steep slopes and holds you as it crawls back to sea level. The engine tick tocks away like a manic, comic clock and there’s a clever four-wheel-drive system, which sends power to whichever corner can make best use of it, and all the paraphernalia somebody would need for locking all the wheels into drive.
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On top of its ruggedness, the Panda is also surprisingly commodious for a small car and drives all right on the road, even if it’s hardly spectacular. In the original version, the seats came out and you could hang them on the washing line if the dogs had got a bit boisterous after a muddy walk. The chairs in the new one stay in situ, but the rear seats do fold flat and I reckon you could get a decent-sized hay bale or pig in there should the need arise.
I went up a hill and down the other side, and managed not to turn upside down, get trapped inside, squished against a large tree trunk or need a smirking farmer with a Massey Ferguson and a tow rope. What the Panda proves is that clever design, lightness and little grippy tyres are more than a match for vast, macho 4x4s. Indeed, if I owned one of these, I might even stop lugging about my spade, emergency flare and rations.
On the road: Fiat Panda 4×4 TwinAir
Official combined fuel consumption: 57.7mpg
0-60mph: 12.1 seconds
In town: Efficient, nippy little runabout shopping cart
In the country: A four-wheeled mountain goat. Who needs a macho SUV?
Stuck in a bog? Not a chance. Even I can off-road in this brilliant little thing
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