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New car review

Fiat Panda Cross review

What is it? The Fiat Panda Cross is a more extreme version of the familiar Panda 4×4 supermini
Key features: Higher ride height, terrain mode, hill descent control
Our view: Does a lot of what a Land Rover can do, but in a smaller, lighter and more economical package.

Superminis with off-road ability are rare, but now Fiat can offer three in its Panda range, dependent on how far away from the tarmac the driver wishes to travel.

The Fiat Panda Trekking remains front-wheel-drive but includes the clever push-button Traction+ system, that brakes the wheels when they lose grip, helping greatly when the going gets slippery.

The Fiat Panda 4×4, as its name suggests, boasts on-demand all-wheel drive. And now there is the Fiat Panda Cross – based on the 4×4, with the same two engines uprated by six horsepower each, and with significantly more ability.

This fact is surprising, because when The Car Expert tested the 4×4 in January 2013, we discovered it had a level of off-road prowess that put many more familiar SUVs to shame. Yet Fiat believes there are some who will want to push the car further into extreme territory, and it is them that the Cross is aimed at.

To create a Fiat Panda Cross, the Panda 4×4 undergoes significant visual and mechanical changes. There are wheel-arch extensions over 15-inch alloy wheels shod with all-year-round mud and snow tyres, thick protective side mouldings, a steel protective skid plate, and chunky new bumpers front and rear, the front one characterised by a number of air intakes in what Fiat dubs its bespoke ‘squircle’ design – this theme is repeated in the cabin.

The bumpers are not just for show, as they improve the car’s ‘attack angles’ – how steep a slope or sheer a drop it can tackle – close to those of pure off-roaders. It boasts an approach angle of 24 degrees, a departure angle of 34 degrees and a breakover angle (what it can negotiate without grounding) of 21 degrees. The Panda Cross will also happily tackle a maximum gradient of 70 per cent.

It has significant wading ability too. The engine’s air intake has been raised to 711mm high in the petrol version, 739mm in the diesel, to ensure that even a river is a viable route to travel – a flooded road dispatched without a second thought.

The extended ride height, up to 158mm on the diesel, 3mm more on the petrol, helps with this ability, matched to bespoke springs and dampers to suit the car’s intended environment.

Of course all this would be of no use without the propulsive ability to match and the Panda Cross has it. The two engines of the 4×4 are retained – the much-admired TwinAir petrol unit of just 900cc, and the 1.3 MultiJet diesel. Both have their power boosted, to 79bhp on the diesel, 89bhp on the petrol, but the critical factor is of course the torque.

The diesel has significantly more at 140lbft, (107 on the petrol) and it is also matched to a six-speed manual gearbox, unlike the petrol’s five-speed. However the little engine makes up for this with a shortened ‘crawler’ first gear that allows the car to move under idle – useful for negotiating tough off-road obstacles.

The Terrain Control driver aid is a big extra in this respect. It will mostly be used in Auto, on the road, the car bowling along in front-wheel-drive unless conditions demand that all four automatically kick in.

In Off-Road mode all four wheels are permanently powered up to speeds of 30mph, the locking differential and ESC are engaged and anti-slip disengaged – all elements designed to ensure progress when the tarmac runs out.

The third mode is Hill-Descent Control – a pure off-road feature that you do not expect to find on a supermini. With this engaged you can descend a very steep slope in neutral, merely steering, and remain in complete control. It’s unnerving but effective.

There is no low-range transfer ‘box such as on ‘proper’ off-roaders, but the Panda Cross doesn’t need one. The launch route included two very different but also very challenging off-road sections, visible on the video accompanying this report, and which by the time we tackled them had been turned into a quagmire by days of heavy rain. The cars negotiated them with ease, and it was telling that the off-road specialists running the courses admitted that they were using the Panda Cross cars to get around as their Land Rovers were bogging down…

The Fiat Panda Cross will mostly be used on the road, however, and it is surprisingly assured. It will lean significantly in corners, but only if you drive it like a lowdown performance car, which is most certainly not. The petrol engine is less flexible than the diesel, needing lots of fuel-sapping revs to give its best, but generally the car is easy to drive considering its abilities.

What might make some potential customers baulk is the price. £16,000 is a lot to pay for a supermini, but this is a supermini that can do so much more than any other. Fiat says it has no direct rivals and this is probably true, the nearest equivalent likely Nissan’s Juke – really a ‘proper’ crossover from the next class up.

So the Panda Cross will be a niche model – Fiat expects to only sell 400 a year in the UK – but it will find its supporters. Out on the Welsh hills around the writer’s home, for example, one could easily imagine it being used by farmers feeding their flocks of roaming sheep, vets on call, emergency services of all types. This is a car that does a whole lot of what a Land Rover can do, but in a smaller, lighter and therefore more economical package.

Fiat Panda Cross – key specifications

Model Tested: Fiat Panda Cross 0.9, 1.3
On Sale: October 2014
Price: £15,945, £16,945
Insurance group: 9U-10U
Engines: 0.9 petrol, 1.3 diesel,
Power (bhp): 89, 79
Torque (lb/ft): 107, 140
0-62mph (sec): 12.0, 14.3
Top speed (mph): 104, 99
Fuel economy (combined, mpg): 57.6, 60.1
CO2 emissions (g/km): 114, 125
Key rivals: Nissan Juke
Test Date: October 2014

Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.
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