Road Impressions – Fiat Panda Cross 4×4

The Fiat Panda Cross is simply the best fun I have had with my clothes on for a long time.

Rather like the Bumble Bee, which was never told it should not be able to fly yet bumbles along happily unaware of its aerodynamic shortcomings, the Panda Cross simply outperforms its limited size to provide a driving experience to bring a broad grin to the face of even the most jaded of drivers.

It is a Noddy car – a segment ‘A’ mini mobile with raised ride height (161 mm), silly little wheels and an engine that, on paper, barely has enough power to pull the skin off a rice pudding.

Yet, it does not know that, and as the 900 cm3 engine winds up through the revs doing its best impression of a kitten attempting to roar like a lion, the little car comes alive and responds instantly to any driver input – cruising quite comfortably at legal limits, even if long uphills do require a couple of downshifts to keep the momentum up.

My test route took us into the foothills of the Drakensberg and onto a 25-kilometre stretch of dirt road covered with small stones – these marbles making it rather slippery. So, I drove it four times just for FUN!

Click the Panda into 4×4 Lock mode and it really showed its mettle – the ‘silly’ little wheels and narrow tyre footprint cutting through the marbles rather than resting on top of them as would be the case with some ‘big brother’ SUVs riding on big rubber.

The traction control system respectfully hangs back to allow the car to slide enough to correctly position into corners and judicious throttle inputs keep it from activating too soon and damping down the revs – meaning it can be pointed into a corner and squirted out like a scared rabbit.

The Panda Cross is equipped with a ‘torque on demand’ transmission system, with two differentials and one electronically controlled coupling. On the 4×4 derivative, this is a permanent four-wheel drive system managed by a control unit which, by analysing vehicle signals, distributes traction to the front and rear axles according to the road conditions. The advantages of this system include fully automatic operation and zero maintenance.

Compared to its 4×4 sibling, the Panda Cross takes the ‘Terrain Control’ a step further by offering selector-controlled AWD features based on the driving conditions. The ‘Terrain Control’ lets the driver select three different modes: Auto – Automatic distribution of drive between the two axles in accordance with the grip levels of the road surface; Lock – The four-wheel drive is always active for optimal off-road use, with distribution of torque among the four wheels, braking the wheels that are losing grip (or slip more than the others), and thus transferring the drive to those with the most grip and Hill Descent – For optimum handling of particularly steep hill descents or when going down extremely bumpy routes.

Launched in South Africa earlier this year, the revised 2017 Panda expanded from the Easy and Lounge versions in conventional front wheel drive (4×2) for the city car, to include the 4×4 and Cross versions.

It is still the same size: 3 650 mm long, 1 640 mm wide and 1 550mm high. The wheelbase is 2 300 mm long and it has a front track of 1 410 mm and a rear track of 1 400 mm, riding on 15-inch wheels and 185/65R15 all-season tyres.

The Cross comes with leather upholstered steering wheel, radio controls and silver finish, to complement the  updated dials that improve the overall readability.

The seat fabrics are refreshed and it has the largest boot in its segment – 225 litres that turns into 870 litres when the rear seat backrest is folded down.

Standard equipment includes the new UconnectTM infotainment system with Bluetooth 2.1, audio streaming, a USB port located in the cubby, a dash mounted USB recharging port as well as voice recognition.

Power comes from Fiat’s two-cylinder 900 cm3 TwinAir petrol engine producing 66 kW of power at 5 500 r/min and 145 Nm of torque at 1 900 r/min driving the wheels through a 6-speed manual transmission.

Unlike the previous generation, the tailpipes of the new Panda 4×4 seamlessly follow the lines of the body and ensure complete protection for the lower part of the car.

The front of the Cross features a brand-new bumper incorporating a generous skid plate in a body colour is standard on the Cross but customers have the option of ordering the Cross Plus package that consists of skid plates and door protection panels in silver ultrashine colour as well as alloy rims and red tow hooks.

The Cross also features new light clusters and new fog lights integrated with the logo holder bonnet trim and new DRLs with LED technology, built into the skid plate.

Inside, the Panda Cross offer automatic climate control, CD/MP3 radio with Blue&Me system with steering wheel controls, rear head restraints, height-adjustable steering wheel, fog lights, leather steering wheel and gear knob and height-adjustable driver’s seat.

Handling is a function of suspension geometry and independent MacPherson strut features at the front and interconnected torsion beam layout at the rear, specifically developed for the four-wheel drive version. The rear suspension is lighter than the previous generation, providing better ride and acoustic comfort with the same off-road performance.

The Panda Cross features an approach angle of 24°, a departure angle of 34° and break-over angle of 21°. Panda Cross can even tackle a maximum gradient of 70% and a lateral gradient of 55%, values close to those of pure off-roaders and higher than those of the leading SUVs on the market.

For the more fuel conscious, the Panda has an ‘Eco’ button that kills off the revs and does, in the long run, save a few litres and I managed 4,7 l/100 km in that mode – which lasted just long enough to establish the consumption before being switched back to fun mode.

Pressed hard on the test route of both tar and dirt, the overall average rose to 6,8 l/100 km, still not bad considering it was being driven like it was stolen and with CO2 emissions of just 114 g/km, it ticks that box as well.

I said at the start it was fun, and it is. The trick to really enjoying the car is taking it in context – it is not going to perform like a Ferrari, so do not compare it one. Enjoy it for what it is – and the only change I would make is to pimp the sound system or, at least, improve the speakers.

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