Johannesburg - Took long enough, but Fiat has finally ousted the old 1.2 petrol from the Panda range, and introduced the 2-cylinder TwinAir turbo engine that first became available overseas in 2011, and locally in the 500 last year.

The new motor accompanies a very mild facelift (this third generation Panda was first launched here in 2013), and while they were at it, Fiat SA used the opportunity to introduce this 4x4 Panda Cross for the first time in our market.

Like the previous generation Panda Climbing, this is a tiny Tonkatoy of a 4x4 with a relatively tiny price tag to match. At R249 900 the Cross is the third cheapest four-wheel drive in SA, only undercut by Mahindra’s Jeep-cloned Thar (R219 995) and the standard Panda 4x4 hatch (R229 900).

Don’t go looking for leather seats, fancy colour touchscreens or soft-touch anything at this price point. This is the very definition of cheap and cheerful motoring, and as with the three other Pandas in the range, the Cross is full of scratchy plastics, chintzy switchgear and easy to spot cost-cutting measures. 

But, in typical Fiat fashion there’s a certain cuteness factor to counter the abundance of el-cheapo materials, and its able to pull off an acceptable level of quality even with its obvious shortcomings.

There isn’t a single hard edge inside the cabin, with all buttons, vents, latches and surfaces rounded like child-safe Fisher-Price toys.

The cheeky vibe carries on outside too, where proud black mouldings, integrated spotlights and prominent skidplates combine in a rugged-looking but cartoon-like way. The Panda Cross’s pronounced stance may be comparable with other puffed-up hatches like VW’s Cross Up and Renault’s Sandero Stepway but it’s more functional here.

Ground clearance sits at 161mm (11 more than the regular hatch), and those Cross-specific bumpers allow steeper approach and departure angles - at 24 and 34 degrees respectively. Just like the offroad renowned Suzuki Jimny, its narrow wheelbase and track also mean it can scamper up and over obstacles a bigger SUV might get hung up on, and though I didn’t test it for obvious reasons, Fiat says it’ll cruise a sideways slope at 55 degrees without toppling. Even the front air intakes are positioned higher in the Cross so it can wade through deeper water.

A fairly capable little offroader it may be, but most Crosses will likely spend most time tootling around suburbia. And I do mean tootling. This turbo 875cc engine is a novel thing, and there are times it’s hard to believe the driving force under the snub-nosed bonnet is smaller than what’s in your average adventure bike.

I wouldn’t call it underpowered, but accessing its 66kW and 145Nm takes some skilfull work of the six-speed manual gearbox. Torque is actually quite plentiful so long as you keep revs right in their sweet spot, much like a small capacity turbodiesel. Just don’t go off searching for more power north of around 3500rpm because those two combustion chambers aren’t at all happy reciprocating at high velocity. There’s an uncomfortable rattle and shake when asked for more than just regular commuting pace.

Sadly, there’s no good news on the fuel consumption front, and that’s a shame considering a reduction in drinkage is the whole point of such a dinky motor. After a week of, well tootling, our test car’s trip computer showed a disappointing 8.2 litres per 100km.

This could probably be improved, a little, with some serious effort and more use of Eco mode, but Fiat’s 4.9l/100km claim is impossible without downhills and tailwinds on every journey.

Eco mode, engaged by a button near the gear lever, numbs the throttle response to such an extent, I doubt if any owners would ever use it. It almost feels like a direct on/off switch for the turbocharger, and if you’re hunting for every cent’s worth of petrol, you’ll need the patience of a Tibetan monk to get anywhere.

On the plus side, the Panda Cross has a relatively grown up ride quality. Sure, it pitches and rolls around sharp bends, but its suspension is squishier than what you’d expect in such a light vehicle and it rolls over rough surfaces quite comfortably.

Some of this probably comes down to Fiat’s tyre choice, which is specific to the Cross in particular. The 185/65R15 Goodyear 4Seasons in use here, are often used as snow tyres in the northern hemisphere, but their beefy tread patterns should also work well on the rocky, sandy trails of South African game reserves.

VERDICT

It’s hard not to see the Panda as a novelty item. Its cutesy styling and cheeky character struggle to offset its low-rent cabin quality and unacceptably thirsty TwinAir engine. But remember, the Cross punches well above its weight in offroad ability and if terrain taming on a budget is your gig, the third cheapest 4x4 in our market will be hard to beat for the money.

FACTS

Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir 4x4 Cross

Engine: 875cc, 2-cylinder turbopetrol
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Power: 66kW @ 5500rpm
Torque: 145Nm @ 1900rpm
0-100km/h (Claimed): 12.0 seconds
Top speed (Claimed): 167km/h
Ground clearance161mm
Boot space225 litres
Price: R379 900
Warranty: 3-year/100 000km
Service/Maintenance plan: 3-year/100 000km