Guys are funny: we lust for beautiful, fast cars with which we hope to impress the neighbors, the guys, and the other sex. But memories are not made of pistonheads’ wet dreams. Looking back, the memorable machines I had were more mutt than thoroughbred: the go-anywhere, never-let-you-down, unpretty, everyday companion. Like the pickup trucks you Americans love, or the iconic 2CV, Renault R4, and VW Beetles we Europeans have in our collective memories. The Fiat Panda has always been on my short list of potential cars-as-buddies: cheap, reliable, fun to drive, unpretentious. So, I was curious: is the 4×4 version of the Panda a faithful mutt, or just another automotive dog?
The Panda looks like no other small car, because it aims to resemble a microscopic SUV (from the time when SUVs were something to emulate). It sure isn’t beautiful, but can it be called ugly? When functional things are what they pretend to be, I’d say ugly is only when the proportions are wrong, the materials are crassly cheap, or when embellishments are grotesque. So, ugly it’s not.
The 4×4 Panda has added ground clearance totaling about 11 inches; you sit high (in my case, eyes at 4ft4“). The dashboard has a pleasant, non-generic shape, the stick shift is located conveniently high, and everything looks well-made. Plastics are almost all hard, as they should be in an off-road vehicle. Headroom is gigantic; the front is a snug but airy place. Legroom in the back is OK for two slim adults, considering that this a tiny (140 inch) car.
My tester was equipped with a modern 70 hp 1.3L 16v diesel. Normally I don’t think diesels belong in a small car. Oil burners are too heavy, too loud and not really economical. But for terrain use, torque trumps all. So I was willing to reconsider. And it’s not bad. Clattery from a cold start but unloud later. The common-rail Multijet provides linear acceleration from 1,000 to 4,700 RPM and strong thrust for the all-important 45-70 mph highway spurt. Don’t ask about 0-60 please. Just trust me: you seldom feel underpowered when 70 diesel horses have only 1060KGs (1.2 US tons) to schlep. My average of 39 mpg is nothing to throw your shoes at, either.
Any vehicle that kicks me in the butt is not going to be my friend (I want a mule, not a goat!). Happily, the Panda’s ride is on the OK side of OK. It feels notchy from standstill, but, generally, the Panda is a surprisingly refined, reassuring package. Let me ask you this: what do you feel when you take a car on a spirited blast over cobblestone roads and through rocky potholes?
Does your vehicle feel fragile and uneasy or does it just shrug it off? Offroad, the Panda competes with the Range Rover. Onroad, it sports a fun and reassuring ability to take speed humps and lousy roads unperturbed. Torque steer is a non-factor, steering is lightweight and precise, and visibility is outstanding. Presto: the (for me) ideal urban car is a micro-SUV.
So there we are. The Fiat Panda 4×4 is great in the country and it’s better in town. It’s no good for high-speed, long-distance driving (too slow, too bouncy), so it’s not for me. But if I lived in one of my favorite places -– say, Zurich or Nice, or another beautiful city near the mountains – this could be one of my favorite cars.