Fiat Panda becomes SA’s most pocket-friendly 4×4
In Europe, the Fiat Panda is something of an automotive legend. The little Italian can be seen traversing narrow country roads and torturous mountain passes, often at breakneck speed, and loaded to the hilt.
It’s been an Italian favourite for more than three decades, attracting a broad customer base that ranges from first-time buyers, outdoor enthusiasts and young families to empty nesters and even retirees, all attracted by the Panda’s unique talent set.
The South African response to the Panda has been a little more muted. The two-wheel drive models were launched in 2013, but haven’t been listed for some time, presumably due to lack of demand.
Updated and refreshed
Both the 4×2 models (dubbed Easy and Lounge) now make their return in refreshed guise, while Fiat has added two 4×4 versions to the line-up, too. In fact, the Panda 4×4 is now SA’s most affordable four-wheel drive vehicle, at a smidgen under R230 000. That alone should make would-be explorers sit up and take notice.
The four-model range thus comprises two 4×2 versions in entry-level Easy and smarter Lounge trim, as well as two 4×4 versions: the Panda 4×4, and the Panda Cross. All four share the same 875 cc two-cylinder TwinAir engine, already familiar from the Fiat 500.
Don’t scoff at the notion of a twin-cylinder mill, though: at 63 kW and 145 Nm, the Panda trumps its closest competitor, the iconic Suzuki Jimny, which has the same 63 kW output, but makes do with 110 Nm. In fact, the range-topping Cross gains an extra 3 kW, for a maximum output of 66 kW.
In broad styling terms, the 2017 Panda hasn’t changed much since its 2013 debut. It’s still ultra-compact, with an upright stance, chunky looks and short overhangs. A 2 300 mm wheelbase ensures decent interior space, despite an overall length of just 3 650 mm.
The only real departure from the styling package is the Cross, which gains some arresting add-ons, all aimed at optimising the little SUV’s all-terrain capability. These elements include a new front bumper with a large, perforated skid plate, a rear scuff plate, bolder wheel arches and prominent roof rails.
The Panda cabin remains well packaged and user-friendly, while new fabrics, finishes and graphics add fresh appeal. Versatility is a key attribute, thanks to a decent-sized 225 litre boot, and a fold-down rear seat backrest, which boosts cargo space to 870 litres.
Even the entry-level Easy gets air-con, stereo sound, four airbags and ESC stability control, while the Lounge, 4×4 and Cross gain extras such as Fiat’s UConnect infotainment system with Bluetooth, USB connectivity and voice control.
As much as the 4×2 Panda models represent an interesting alternative to other small city commuters, notably Fiat’s own 500, we’re expecting the 4×4 and Cross models to hog the Panda limelight.
Permanent four-wheel drive
Unlike the Jimny, which has a low-range transfer case, the Panda uses a permanent all-wheel drive system with front and rear diffs, and a central coupling that divides drive between the front and rear axles.
The Panda all-wheel drive models get a six-speed manual gearbox with a first gear acting as a so-called ‘donkey gear’ with a very short ratio, which makes up to some extent for the lack of low range.
Electronic diff lock
The all-wheel drive system is managed by an electronic control unit that automatically distributes power between the axles, based on input from wheel slip, steering angle and yaw sensors. A selectable electronic diff lock (ELD) function is standard across both the 4×4 and the Cross models.
In the Cross, a terrain control allows the driver to switch between fully automatic operation and a lock setting, which engages both front and rear axles, while ELD allows torque transfer between individual wheels by braking the wheels losing traction. There’s also a Hill Descent function.
Impressive 4×4 credentials
Fiat claims impressive 4×4 credentials for the two all-wheel drive Pandas. The Panda 4×4 boasts approach and departure angles of 21 and 36 deg respectively, while the Cross manages 24 deg and 34 deg.
The Cross can also tackle a maximum gradient of 70 percent, and a lateral gradient of 55 percent, while the engine intake duct has been elevated to 711 mm to allow for fjording.
Just how effectively those stats translate in real-world off-road conditions remains to be seen: we’re hoping to get our hands on a test vehicle soon.
Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir Easy R184 900
Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir Lounge R199 900
Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir 4×4 R229 900
Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir 4×4 Cross R249 900