Durban - Fiat’s quirky little A segment Panda is back in South Africa, this time with a grunty little 875cc TwinAir turbopetrol prime mover, shared with the Fiat 500, that not only enables it to escape import duty and make some impressive emissions claims, but also adds an extra dimension to the car’s persona.
Fiat SA has also brought the 4x4 option back, but even in front-wheel drive format the Panda seems more of a crossover than a hatch, with upright seating that makes it taller and more spacious inside than rival city cars (although, in an attempt to maximise that space, Fiat has made the front seats a little narrow for beefy South African behinds), while the all-wheel drive derivatives are remarkably capable off-road once you learn to keep the revs up a little – this is, after all, a two-cylinder engine.
At 63kW and 145Nm it has more than enough grunt for zipping around town, pulling strongly from 2400 revs right up to the power peak at 5600rpm, accompanied by a growly soundtrack unlike anything you’ve heard before. At low revs it’s like a diesel without the clatter, but as you begin to explore the power curve it’s more like a big twin-cylinder motorcycle or quad.
Nevertheless, it’s a very friendly growl, and the willing little twin never sounds stressed, even when working hard.
Front-wheel drive variants have a five-speed manual gearbox, with a stubby lever mounted high up on the centre stack for quick, fuss-free shifting. The controls are light, the steering precise and the long-travel suspension is firm but supple, free of the choppiness and pitching you’d expect from a relatively light car with a wheelbase of only 2300mm.
Typically Italian, the layout of the controls is a little unexpected – the rocker switches for the standard electric front electric windows are on the bottom of the centre stack, for example – and the Panda does take a bit of learning.
All-wheel drive versions have a six-speed gearbox with a first gear so low it almost qualifies as a five-speed ’box with underdrive – very reassuring when crawling around on rough or sandy terrain, as we did on part of the launch drive.
Fiat Panda Cross shown. Picture: Dave Abrahams
Each drivetrain comes in two trim levels, for a four-strong line-up, starting with the front-wheel drive Easy model. This has black door handles and mirror housings, and runs on 14 inch black steel rims. Standard kit includes a two-speaker radio/CD player, manual aircon, remote central locking, idle stop, hill hold and tyre pressure monitoring.
The upscale Lounge variant adds body colour door handles and mirror housings, front fog-lights, a leather-trimmed multifunction steering wheel, automatic air-conditioning, a four speaker sound system with Bluetooth, auxiliary and USB connectivity, front and rear parking sensors and a smartphone cradle – download the app and your phone becomes part of the car’s infotainment system.
Fiat Panda Lounge shown. Picture: Dave Abrahams
The 4x4 model comes with all-wheel drive, six-speed ‘box and 15 inch steel rims shod with 175/65 tyres, 150mm of ground clearance and all the interior trim features of the Lounge. The default mode of the ‘Torque on Demand’ system is front-wheel drive, with torque directed to the rear wheels as needed, with two differentials and an electronic centre coupling.
The 4x4 variant has an ‘electronic locking differential’ system that’s manually engaged and works at up to 50km/h, braking the wheels that lose traction and transferring torque to the wheels with more grip.
The range-topping Cross model takes that a step further with a three-way ‘Terrain Control’ selector. ‘Auto’ mode is the same as the default mode of the 4x4, while in ‘Lock’ mode the centre coupling is permanently locked and the electronic locking differentials are activated. Finally, ‘Hill Descent’ restricts the Panda Cross to walking pace no matter how steep the slope.
The Cross has an extra 11mm of ground clearance, thanks to 185/65 all-terrain tyres on 15 inch steel rims with plastic covers (cheaper and quicker to replace than alloy rims if they get bashed while you’re bundu bashing), steel underbody bash plates and a distinctive body-colour front skid plate, special headlight clusters, fog-lights and LED daytime running lights.
Inside, you get a special copper finish on the dashboard and centre console, a height-adjustable driver’s seat and rear head restraints.
There’s also an extra-cost Cross Plus package available that adds 15 inch alloys, a satin aluminium finish front skid plate and side mirror housings, and red tow hooks.
Panda Cross 4x4
The Big Deal
You can however, knock as much as R40 000 off these prices if you scrap an old vehicle as part of the deal. The idea is to replace inefficient, out-dated polluters on the road with low-emissions Twin-Air engines. Terms and conditions apply, however; you have to provide proof that it’s your car, that it has been registered for the road within the past six months and that is really has been scrapped.