SA’s smallest 4x4 crossover is big on charm (and thirst)...

It’s a big pie, the crossover market, and it’s getting bigger by the day, especially here in South Africa. Hoping to take an admittedly thin slice of this pastry is the new Fiat Panda 4x4 Cross, smartly aimed at those to whom a medium-sized SUV is out of reach. After quietly exiting Fiat’s local line-up in July 2016, a facelifted Panda range has now made its return to our market with four models, all fitted with Fiat’s 875 cm3, two-cylinder engine. This Panda Cross 4x4 certainly looks the part and Fiat’s designers have done a commendable job, both inside and out, in giving the little city car a more adventurous persona.

With trimmings that include roof rails, protruding front foglamps and an interesting punctured grille below the front bumper, its looks encourage you to exit left off the tar road; there are even respectable angles for off-roading (24 degrees for approach; 34 for departure; and a break-over angle of 21 degrees). Inside, the Panda’s rounded-square theme is evident all over, appearing in the design of the steering wheel, air vents and gear knob, to name but three.

There is, however, not much secure space to store your belongings, with narrow door pockets and a small glovebox, albeit with a larger, open storage space above it. Between the two front seats, there are four shallow holders for bottles or small paraphernalia. The cloth seats are comfortable, offering a commanding view from behind the steering wheel, but a few testers complained of an awkward seating position owing to the rake-only steering column always feeling too far away.

As expected from an A-segment hatch, space for rear passengers is limited, with taller staffers struggling to fit behind their own driving position. Headroom throughout is decent, though. While it could do with a larger screen, the Uconnect system offers full Bluetooth functionality. It’s not that intuitive to use and set up, however, requiring commands to be entered either via the steering-wheel buttons or those on the facia.

Quirky doesn’t extend only to this Panda’s design aesthetics, either ... wait until you turn the key. The two-pot is gruff and, judging by the sounds and vibrations it emits, you may well wonder whether you should fill it up with either petrol or diesel. Blipping the throttle won’t clear up the confusion, either. Only a glance at the instrument cluster and the indicated 6 500 r/min red line confirms that it does in fact drink unleaded.

The gearshift action is not the most direct in the segment, but it is light and easy for town driving and the gearlever is perfectly positioned. It does take generous revs to pull away smoothly, and switching to second or third gear requires a beady eye on the rev counter. Let the revs drop below 2 500 r/min and the engine starts to stutter; hold on to a ratio too long and the engine runs abruptly into the limiter shortly after 5 500 r/min (so much for the indicated 6 500 r/min red line).

That gives the powertrain an effective range of 3 000 r/min. However, for such a small-capacity engine – and one operating a permanent all-wheel-drive system – it does have some impressive punch through that band. Thanks to a decent slug of torque, on the highway it is easy to cruise at the national speed limit, although overtaking round this speed is a challenge, even when gearing down.

This, however, is never going to be the Panda’s natural habitat and in city driving it does fare better. Given its all-wheel-drive system and related electronic locking differential, we also headed for gravel roads and some challenging obstacles. The Panda’s soft suspension soaked up imperfections with impressive ease and, even on a relatively challenging axle-twister, the Fiat’s hard- and software (with Terrain Control set to off-road mode) saw it clamber its way to the top of the course. However, since the engine does not appreciate anything less than 2 500 r/min, low-speed manoeuvres are a challenge.

Our biggest issue with the engine aside from its distinct lack of refinement is its heavy drinking habits. Averaging 6,7 L/100 km on our fuel run and never less than 7,0 L/100 km in day-to-day running, it’s a clear sign that downsizing doesn’t always work. On our test strip, we were also disappointed with the Panda’s braking abilities. Despite being fitted with ABS and EBD, the ABS appeared not to activate during our standard testing procedures. Not only did the Panda post an average braking time of 3,35 seconds, but the tyres left long black lines on the tarmac as the wheels locked up. The ABS brakes, however, did function well on gravel roads, which was a little puzzling.



TEST SUMMARY

In terms of its design, the facelifted Panda range is an attractive proposition. The gruff and thirsty engine does, however, detract from the package. Having ample experience of Fiat's venerable 1,2-litre, four-cylinder - which is available in this range abroad - we believe it would better suit this car, offering more linear performance and most likely better fuel consumption.

Downsizing to a two-cylinder engine works for a small, light car such as the 500. In the case of the Panda, with its commendable off-road prowess, a larger, naturally aspirated engine would be the better match. If you must have a Panda 0,9 TwinAir 4x4, however, save R20 000 and get the normal AWD version.

*From the November 2017 issue of CAR magazine