Fiat Panda 4x4 And Trekking review
by Tom Stewart (22 October 2012)
It really doesn't seem as long ago as 2005 that I was on the UK press launch of the second-generation Panda 4x4. That event was held in Wiltshire where we experienced a good dollop of soggy green lane driving on Salisbury Plain – just the sort of off-road environment that hardy rural types might experience on a daily basis.
Although the then-new model certainly had the technical credentials to venture properly off-road, could it really cut the muddy mustard? The answer was an emphatic "yes" as the Panda's compact dimensions, light weight and easy manoeuvrability made up for its lack of brute power, stupendous suspension travel and macho tyre size.
And so to the international press launch of the new 2012 Panda 4x4 and Trekking models which was staged in and around Fiat's Balocco proving ground, roughly midway between Milan and Turin. I set off first in a 1.3 MultiJet II diesel – same five-speed manual gearbox and 75hp output as the second-gen Panda, but now with 140lb/ft of torque (up from 107lb/ft), 0-62mph in 14.5 seconds (down from 16.1), combined mpg up from 57.7 to 60.1 and CO2 down marginally from 128g/km to 125g/km (same VED Band D).
Although with 160mm of ground clearance the 4x4 MultiJet sits further from the ground than the front-wheel drive Panda, and it has 21/36 degree approach/departure angles, 175/60 15" tyres with chunky all-weather tread, not to mention its permanent 4WD system with two differentials, an electronically controlled torque-on-demand coupling that "distributes traction on the front and rear axles homogeneously and proportionally according to the road grip conditions", the new 4x4 drives on road much like the standard Panda, which is to say rather well.
Yes, the 4x4 feels a bit taller, but in normal driving it's just as wieldy through turns, it rides at least as comfortably and, without driving the doors off the two back-to-back, any extra body roll that the 4x4 may have is inconsequential.
If I must point the finger then it would have to be at the 1.3 MultiJet motor which, though decently responsive, torquey and speedy (and green), is a little noisy which could prove wearing on a long drive.
With the road route done it was time to tackle Balocco's off-road facility. Unlike Salisbury Plain, this is a largely man-made course with scarily steep ascents and descents, plus all manner of wheel-raising, axle-twisting, chassis-crunching, rollover-inducing concrete impediments designed primarily to test the mettle of the big-boy Grand Cherokees and Wranglers that are now manufactured under Fiat's wing.
Having tackled this course previously in both those Jeeps I was mildly apprehensive about doing the same in a humble Panda. But I needn't have worried for two reasons: 1) the most extreme sections of the course were sensibly coned-off and 2) the Panda breezed the rest of it. Well, "breezed" is perhaps a slight exaggeration because without an automatic Hill Descent system one needed to use the brakes going downhill to prevent the car from gaining too much speed and thumping its chin at the bottom, notwithstanding the 4x4's significantly lower first-gear ratio.
And to apply the brakes with any force requires that there's sufficient surface grip, which there was on Balocco's rough concrete descents, but there may not be on mud or wet stone elsewhere.
In addition to Electronic Stability Control (ESC) the Panda 4x4 also boasts a manually switchable electronic differential lock (ELD) which brakes any wheels with poor grip (or those slipping more than the others) – handy on some of Balocco's concrete obstacles, but handier still on a slippery green lane in the shires.
Like its most recent predecessor, the new Panda 4x4 is a far more capable off-roader than its looks would have you believe. At the time of writing UK prices hadn't been finalised, but expect around £14,000 for the 0.9-litre TwinAir version, or a little under £15k for the 1.3 MultiJet, and these prices will include the Panda's top-grade Lounge spec with manual aircon, a CD/MP3 radio, alloy wheels, powered windows/mirrors and remote central locking as standard.
Now you may be wondering, as was I, quite how and where the new Panda Trekking fits into the picture. Put simply, the Trekking is a front-wheel drive version of the Panda 4x4, but it differs from the normal road-only Panda by dint of its 4x4-spec ride height, very similar approach and departure angles and all-weather tyres.
The Trekking also features Traction+, a development of ESC that controls and manages the braking system and electronically simulates the behaviour of a self-locking electromechanical differential – all of which is simpler, lighter and indeed cheaper than 4x4 gubbins.
Fiat refers to the Trekking as a CUV, or City Utility Vehicle, and describes it as "the perfect solution for those who mainly use their vehicles in the city, but want to travel safely on surfaces with poorer road grip during all their outdoor activities". Or, perhaps more relevantly, it's a car for those who rarely if ever venture off-road, and who don't need or want the expense of four-wheel drive, but who do like to be able to vacate their parking space without too much drama on a cambered urban side-street after an overnight dusting of snow.
Unfortunately a snowy cambered side street wasn't available to us at Balocco, but the Trekking's test route did involve some loose gravel tracks, which could have easily been driven in almost any car, plus some axle articulation ramps which demonstrated that the Trekking is about as capable as the 4x4 model in this respect.
My Trekking was powered by the two-cylinder TwinAir Turbo petrol engine – 85hp, 107bhp, 0-62mph in 12.1 seconds, 57.7mpg combined and 114g/km (Band C) – and, as has now been reported many times before, it's a cracking little motor even if its real world fuel consumption is rarely a match for its official figures.
Both the 4x4 and the Trekking will be with UK dealers from mid November, with the latter costing approximately £12,450 for the TwinAir, and add another grand for the MultiJet.
So, as before, you don't have to own a juicy SUV to join the 4x4 set, and you don't have to drive a pukka 4x4 to stay mobile during the whiter spells of winter. For my money the new Panda doesn't look quite as cute as the previous model – it reminds me just a bit too much of the organically-styled (blobby) mid 1990s Nissan Micra – but both these new Pandas are undeniably useful little cars.