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Fiat Panda bares its teeth

Fiat's rugged 4x4 is as impressive on tarmac, writes Jim McCauley

The demure and static lines of the previous generation Fiat Panda have been refined in the latest model with a more elegant interpretation that does wonders for the model range.

Now, that range has expanded with two off-road contenders, the two-wheel drive Trekking featuring a sophisticated traction control system and the Panda 4X4 with its astonishing off-road capability.

Test choice was the 4X4 diesel model which offers greater refinement than the intrusive engine dominance of the twin-cylinder petrol model. This 1.3 litre MultiJet engine produces 75bhp with 190Nm of torque on tap from 1500rpm. Driving through a standard five-speed manual gearbox, this engine will nudge 100mph in top speed with a 0-62mph time of 14.5 seconds. And like any diesel, its main advantage over the petrol engined alternative is its mid-range response, both on-road and in challenging off-road conditions.

The 4X4 sits 50mm higher than the standard range with silver-coloured skid plates front and rear and 4X4 graphics on the side-rubbing strips.

On road, and the Panda 4X4 drives smartly with smooth movement between the gears. Suspension is firm, but overall ride is comfortable, and the electric steering firms its feel on the open road to offer a more reassuring response than its lighter feel at lower town speeds. For those chasing economy, the 4X4 comes with standard start/stop and a gear change indicator to advise on the optimum time to select another ratio.

On road grip has the security of permanent four-wheel drive in a system that employs two differentials and an electronically controlled coupling. In normal dry conditions, 98% of available torque goes to the front wheels, but as conditions demand, the power can be distributed up to 50:50 between the two axles.

In addition, for off-road work the Panda 4X4 has an electronic locking differential which brakes wheels with poor grip on slippery terrain transferring the driving force to those with greater grip. And this is where the Panda excels. At its UK launch, there was an opportunity to drive the cars with standard road tyres on a Land Rover proving course where they emerged with flying colours through challenging terrain and adverse weather conditions, confirming their position as serious contenders in the all-wheel drive stakes.

The cabin of the 4X4 varies a little from the standard car and presents a vibrant colour co-ordinated interior with definite youth appeal. Instrumentation is clear and easy to read but the optional height adjustment on the driver's seat is a necessary inclusion on any order as the steering column has rake-only adjustment. Cabin storage spaces are plentiful and the boot provides a generous 225 litres of storage, extendible by folding the rear seats.

All models come with manual climate control, electric front windows and front fog lights as well as a comprehensive electronic handling support package. While a puncture repair kit is standard in the car, a space saver spare wheel is optional as is a dash mounted socket for a Tom Tom navigation unit.

Overall, Fiat expects around 12% of their 6,000 Panda sales this year to be Trekking and 4X4 models with the Panda 4X4 MultiJet as tested priced at £14,950. The car has an official combined fuel consumption of 60.1mpg, and with a CO2 emissions of 125gms/km is in band D for zero annual car tax in year one and £95 per year thereafter.

Fiat Panda 4x4

Engine: 1.3-litre, MultiJet diesel, 75bhp @ 4,000rpm. 140lb ft torque @ 1,500rpm.

Drive: Via five-speed manual gearbox to all four wheels. Selectable start/stop technology

Performance: 0-62mph (100km/h) in 14.5 seconds; max, 99mph (158km/h)

Fuel on combined cycle: 60.1mpg (4.7l/100km)

CO2: 125gms/km; VED band D for zero annual car tax in year one and £95 a year thereafter

Trim: Standard

Price: £14,950

Insurance: ABI Group 7 (50 category rating)

Warranty: Three-year/60,000 miles, 12 years’ anti-perforation cover

Benefit-in-kind: 16%

Euro NCAP: N/A

Available extras: Adjustable height driver’s seat, £50; metallic paint, £450; rear-parking sensors, £250; optional spare wheel in lieu of puncture repair kit £50.

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