FABBRICA Italiana Automobili Torino (or Fiat for short), has always been best loved for its small car designs, and produced some real classics in the ’50’s, ’60s and ’70’s. With the new Panda, at last we have an excellent modern example of the Italian company’s wizardry in this area. Chosen as Europe’s Car of the Year for 2004, the Panda, at first glance, looks like a funky, chunky urban runabout. But take a look under its rear end and the technically minded will spot a differential and driveshafts. Cast a glance at the high-set body with roof rails, and you may start to wonder what Fiat is up to...

Well, the badge on the back spills the beans. It says “4x4” and “Climbing”. In a nutshell, it’s a soft-roader with front-wheel drive doing the work most of the time, but if the front wheels lose traction, a viscous coupling sends driving torque through a prop- shaft, rear diff and half-shafts to the rear wheels to help out.

Providing “go” is the familiar 1,2- litre single-cam engine from the Palio and Siena models, re-mapped to provide the same torque (102 N.m), but peaking at much lower revs (2 500 as opposed to 3 200), but with maximum output reduced from 54 to only 44 kW. This is a pity, since the extra power would help a lot, especially at inland altitudes. Introduction of the 1,3-litre Multijet turbodiesel powerplant, as found in the Punto, is possible at a later stage.

The styling is an unqualified success, the Panda looking every inch a miniaturised version of some of the larger, well-respected 4x4 stalwarts. While some consider it cute, small add-on black plastic bumper sections and side mouldings, including wheelarches and side strips, add a purposeful, chunky edge as befits an off-road vehicle.

Pandas are made in Fiat’s factory in Poland, and the overall standard of finish and paintwork looks very good. Although the standard Trekking model (R124 000) includes most desirable features such as air-con, key operated central locking, electric front windows, dual airbags, and ABS with EBD, the Climbing model adds side airbags, an integral radio/ CD, remote central locking, split fold puring rear seats, and steering wheelmounted audio controls. Wider, 185/65 14-inch tyres are also fitted in place of 165/70s.

The interior is modern, funky and colourful, with good quality hard plastics and a decent standard of fit and finish. All controls are close at hand, thanks to a facia design that brings the centre section out towards the interior of the cabin. Only the audio system volume control knob is a stretch, but the satellite controls mean that this is not a problem. The other ventilation and air-conditioning knobs are small and easily adjusted. Instrumentation is clearly presented and includes a trip/fuel consumption display. Much appreciated is a onetouch up/down facility for the driver’s window. One criticism, especially on such a modern design, is limited storage facilities. There are three drinkholders (two front and one rear), door pockets and a glove box, but no console or under-seat bins to hide valuables.

Upholstery looks hard-wearing, the test unit’s seats being finished in an attractive grey and red colour scheme, colour-coded with the exterior paintwork. The seats are just large enough for most frames, and offer fair support. Headroom is ample, elbowroom acceptable, but legroom is more of a problem. While impressive for such a small car, and enhanced by the fact that the seats are high-mounted, tall drivers will battle to get comfortable, not helped by the left-foot rest that is mounted too vertical. It is possible to slide your foot underneath the clutch for a more comfortable resting spot. The driver’s left knee rests against the centre facia section, but fortunately this is not too uncomfortable.

Rear seat space appears poor at first glance, but is not that bad, thanks to the good headroom and high-mounted seats that increase leg space. The rear seat is split 50:50 on the Climbing model (the Trekking has a bench seat). Strangely, the rear seat cushion does not tip forward: the backrests merely fold down to rest on top of the cushion, so load space is not outstanding. Nevertheless, with help from the high roofline, a utility space figure of 832 dm3 is achieved, identical to larger hatchbacks such as the Nissan Micra and Opel Corsa.

The interior can be a noisy place, but this only manifests at higher speeds due to the hard-working engine, with wind noise contributing. Road noise is subdued, even with the chunky Pirelli “Winter” tyres. An excursion into some fairly steepsloped vineyards around Stellenbosch showed that the Climbing is up to the job. So effortless is the transition to all-wheel drive that it is a pity there is no indication on the facia to inform one of when the rear wheels are helping out. The tyres provided excellent grip, too. Descending was also fussfree, with engine braking doing most of the work. There’s respectable ground clearance (165 mm at the front and 225mm under the rear diff), a good approach angle of 29 degrees, and an even better 45- degree departure angle.

Occasionally on muddy slopes we found that a front wheel would lose all its grip, forcing a slightly different direction of approach to be tried to get going again, there being no limited slip facility in the diffs.

We noted that the windscreen wipers were rather noisy. The rear wiper is automatically activated when reversing if the front wipers are operational.

Top speed is rather pedestrian at 141 km/h. This means that most freeway driving is done using a firmly planted right foot, leaving little in reserve for overtaking, and taking a toll on fuel consumption. We recorded an overall fuel index figure of 8,1 litres/100 km, but sustained high speed driving will adversely affect this figure. With the small fuel tank of 30 litres, a severely limited range (less than 400 km) can be expected.

Ride is above par for such a small vehicle. Suspension travel is good, with spring and damper rates well chosen for a firm but absorbent ride. Handling is cheeky, and even with a high driving position the Fiat can be chucked around with enough feedback from the electrically powered steering to allow corrections to be geared in before trouble arrives. The electric steering includes Fiat’s “city” switchable mode, which increases power assistance at crawling speeds for ultra-light parking manoeuvres.

Test summary

While the need for such a vehicle may be questioned, it is a winner simply from the looks and fun factor approach. With thousands of off-road opportunities and the added status of owning a 4x4 in South Africa, many punters will say “Why not?” The Panda’s main problem is that its small size says “city car” while the four-wheel drive says “country”. And to travel into the country you generally need more power and space...

We suspect most Pandas will be destined to remain in captivity, caged into inner-city gridlock, but we trust that some will find the chance to escape to the cleaner air of the wilds.