The utilitarian shape of the old Panda and its austere interior, combined with four-wheel drive made it an ideal drive-anywhere-in-all-weathers vehicle with a low price.
Although Fiat stopped selling the original Panda in the UK nearly 10 years ago, production stopped only during 2003.
It means that mainland Europeans have been able to satisfy their budget off-road needs for much longer, although the Panda 4x4 has always had a stronger following in areas where the terrain becomes tricky during winter.
But in the time that Fiat has stopped offering the Panda in the UK, something has happened to the 4x4 vehicle. It has become trendy.
Compact four-wheel drive vehicles in the UK are relatively few. The Daihatsu Terios and Suzuki Jimny are miniature versions of the traditional 4x4, with the Jimny offering slightly more serious off-road ability than the Terios. However, both of these vehicles have compromised on-road performance thanks to their off-road bias and architecture.
As for compact four wheel-drive cars, there is an all-wheel drive version of the Suzuki Ignis called the 4Grip. The Ignis is built at the same plant in Hungary as the Subaru Justy (no longer offered in the UK) and Subaru provides all-wheel drive across its range.
Daihatsu also offers four-wheel drive versions of the YRV and Sirion. All of these are larger than the new Panda, which arrived in the UK at the start of this year, so Fiat believes it has a unique proposition in the market with the Panda 4x4 in that its off-road ability would be between the Ignis 4Grip and the Jimny, while its comfort level would be more like a traditional small car.
It’s amusing to think how London Mayor Ken Livingstone would react to the Panda 4x4.
It has perhaps as much off-road ability as cars like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 – part of the much-maligned SUV fraternity whose drivers Livingstone recently branded ‘idiots’ and who many environmentalists and politicians would like to see taxed more.
But this is no gas-guzzling leviathan. The Panda 4x4 is less than 12 feet long and just over five feet wide minus its door mirrors.
The car will be launched with the 1.2-litre 60bhp engine already found in the standard Panda and will be joined later by the 1.3-litre Multijet diesel. The Multijet is unconfirmed for right-hand drive markets, but sufficient demand should make it a certainty.
The 1.2 achieves 42.2mpg on the combined cycle and 50mpg-plus is a strong possibility for the diesel version.
Fiat is on course to sell 10,000 Pandas a year in the UK and about 10% of sales are expected to be the 4x4 version. The new Panda 4x4 is more sophisticated with broader appeal than the old workmanlike version.
The UK will take the higher specification version (called the Climbing in its domestic market), boasting a trip computer, follow-me-home headlamps, electric front windows, electrically-adjustable door mirrors, split rear seat, passenger airbag deactivation, alloy wheels, front foglights, roof rails and a space-saver spare wheel.
However, all Panda 4x4s have four disc brakes, ABS and engine sump shields over the standard car. There will be scope for selecting further options on top of this specification, such as Fiat’s Connect navigation system, but this will be confirmed nearer to the car’s on-sale date.
Behind the wheel
MUCH of the Panda’s appeal is in its styling and the 4x4 retains all of the car’s individuality but has chunkier wheel-arches and raised suspension.
The centre parts of the front and rear bumpers are finished in black in the centre, giving the car a more robust appearance, and all UK cars will come with roof rails. The interior has the same cheerful design as the standard car with two-tone fabric seats and dashboard-mounted gearstick.
Four-wheel drive is deployed through a viscous coupling, which ordinarily sends 98% of torque to the front wheels and 2% to the rear. When the system detects slippage the torque split can be varied with up to 50% going to the rear wheels.
The price of carrying all this four-wheel drive paraphernalia is a compromise in performance – the Panda 4x4 takes an extra six seconds to reach 62mph from rest and it also costs the car 6mph in its top speed.
On normal roads it does feel rather like driving in slow motion, although in third gear the Panda 4x4 seems quite happy to pull from low revs around tight corners.
Momentum is key when driving the car on out-of-town roads. As long as slower corners are well anticipated and the right gear selected, the Panda 4x4 is content to maintain its spirited manner.
The Panda 4x4 has slightly larger shock absorbers than the standard car and springs that offer greater ground clearance but also improve the ride quality.
Its small dimensions, light body – at 980kg it’s still relatively light, although 120kg heavier than a standard Panda – and thin tyres make it highly manoeuvrable off road and it can scamper up gravelly inclines with less drama than larger vehicles.
With 75lb-ft of torque from a usefully low 2,500rpm, the Panda 4x4 rarely spends enough time anywhere to get bogged down and even made light work of an awkward part of the off-road course on our test route which involved scaling a wet grassy bank.
On the course, it also ploughed through a section with several inches of muddy water, and while it doesn’t have an extra low-ratio gearbox, it coped well running down steep hills in first gear with an occasional dab of the brake pedal to keep things under control.
THE Panda 4x4 is a unique proposition in the city car segment with appeal for those who need a small car with some of the styling attributes of a four-wheel drive car. The bonus for those who need to drive off-road is that the Panda will tackle many obstacles the great outdoors can throw at it.
Model: Panda 4x4 1.2
Engine (cc): 1,242
Max power (bhp/rpm): 60/5,000
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm): 75/2,500
Max speed (mph): 90
0-62mph (sec): 20.0
Fuel consumption (mpg): 42.8
CO2 emissions (g/km): 156
Fuel tank capacity (l/gal): 30/6.6
Transmission: 5-sp man
Service interval (miles): 12,000
On sale: January 2005
Price (estimated): £9,000