Forget the Labradoodle, the cross you want is a Fiat. The Fiat Panda Cross. It’s a Terrier meets chamois goat as it leaps as it enthusiastically zips around town, but goes rock climbing at weekends (writes Simon Rockman).
Ok there is something quite bulldog about the way it looks with deep set fog lights and high bumpers but these are as much function as form.
Fiat is aiming the Panda Cross at people it calls City Venturers. Those who want a 4×4 for weekend activity but find a full sized or even sub-sized 4×4 like the Q3 a pain to park during the week. It’s small at 370 centimetres long and 166 wide, making it shorter and narrower than a MINI, but it’s taller giving more space inside and Fiat claims the 225 litre boot is the biggest in class.
Those fog lights are set at a level where they are most effective and that high bumper with skid plate is to provide protection climbing steep inclines. The bright red tow hooks hint that this is a serious off-roader. A lot of the design however is about making a statement. The “Sole Yellow” is a “launch colour” but a more refined colours are available: Passione Red, Cappuccino Beige, Gelato White, Cinema Black
and Toscana Green. Inside, the seats have a flamed natural fabric with a technical appearance featuring brown eco-leather side containment strips to match the trim on the door panels. Front seats have Cross wording on the backrest. The dashboard surround is a two tone copper and black colour to set off the striking new silver finish of the dashboard, the plastic quality is fine but it’s not as well-made as something like a Volkswagen UP. The steering wheel and gear knob are covered in black leather. It’s not as funky as a 500 with its bare metal interior but it’s still got some Italian design flair.
There are two engine options a 1.3 Multijet diesel and the wonderful little 875cc two cylinder Twin air engine which is used to such good effect in the 500 and the Alfa Romeo Mito. The diesel pushes out 80 hp and the petrol engine 90hp, with naturally enough the diesel clawing back the advantage with torque 190Nm plays 145Nm. This gives the top car a top speed of 100mph in diesel form and 104mph under petrol power. At just over a tonne – the petrol version weighs 1090kg and the oil burner 1155kg, it’s not that rapid in acceleration. Fiat give figures on the 0-62.5 time (0-100kmh) of 14.3 for diesel and 12.0 seconds for petrol.
That weight comes from the 4×4 system. This uses a system of two differentials and an electronic coupling to ensure that wheels which have grip get the most power. This means in slippery conditions you won’t have the wheels with the least traction spinning. The electronic differential has three modes : Auto, off-road and hill descent which are selected from a rotary control between the handbrake and gear-lever. In Auto torque is shuffled between front and rear axles depending on the road surface this will usually man that 98% of power goes to the front as this is the most economical configuration but as the power is needed at the back the electronics juggle it as necessary.
In Off-road mode, the all-wheel drive becomes permanent to improve road holding with poor grip conditions and thoroughly use the engine toque, braking the wheels that are losing grip, or slipping more than the others, and thus transferring the drive to those with the most grip. In this way it optimizes the traction on uneven terrain. The off-road mode automatically disengages at a little over 30mph to save fuel.
The HDC (Hill Descent Control) mode magically controls the brakes as you go down steep inclines. It keeps the car at a constant speed acting independently and separately on the brakes. The HDC function comes into action automatically when the speed drops below 16mph and remains in standby mode up to 30mph. The upshot of all this engine and transmission technology, combined with good ground clearance of 160mm and short overhangs is that the little Panda can climb hills with an approach angle of 24°, the exit angle 34° and the ramp angle is 21°. By comparison a Porsche Cayenne which is much taller and has very much bigger wheels has an approach angle of 27° and departure angle of 25°, so the Panda will get down slopes the Porsche can not.
One sign that Fiat is being pragmatic about prioritising effectiveness off-road is that it fits 15 inch wheels with excellent all seasons Goodyear Mud and Snow tyres. If Fiat was targeting people who want a 4×4 as a fashion statement it would have used bigger wheels with road tyres. This would have looked better but given less room for articulation and compromised off-road performance.
On the road it’s sprightly. Covering ground enthusiastically, with that-terrier like feel as it dive into corners. Throw it into a bend a little too enthusiastically and the front end will plough on, or understeer, when you’d hope it will turn but you can get away with going far faster than you’d expect from a little car like this before that happens and the four wheel drive keeps it tidy and under control. On gravel tracks it proved sure footed and over really uneven surfaces the suspension damping pretty good. It’s a tallish car so predictably there is some body roll, particularly on corners with adverse camber but this is better controlled than you’d expect. On all counts the suspension
and drive train do a fantastic job of belieing the size and shape.
The steering feel is decent. I’m no fan of the electric power steering all cars are starting to use, and strongly dislike the system in the Fiat 500 which is super-light to the extent of feeling disconnected, but in the Panda Cross there is more weight and you get a good feel of what the wheels are doing. There is a “city” mode which reduces the weight of the steering but even this has good feedback.
Motorway driving is comfortable, the soundproofing is good, very good for a small car although there is some grumble from the twin-air engine, wind noise from the wing mirrors and those mud and snow tyres rumble a little. It’s more than capable of keeping up with traffic but you are not going to win any races. I tried both the twin air and the diesel and felt that the excitable twin-air more suited the car than the oily one. The diesel only has a five speed gearbox and could have benefitted from the six speed fitted to the smaller engine. The Twin-air despite being revvy runs out of puff at 5500 rpm, but naturally that’s a good 1500 rpm up on the diesel.
Fiat laid on an off-road track at their proving ground and here the Panda Cross was truly incredible. If I ever thought that this car was abusing 4x4ness as a fashion statement, driving around the track would refute this. Battersea Rise in the snow? No problem. The little Panda climbed incredibly steep slopes, and the Hill Descent Control felt like voodoo. You might think East Hill is steep but that’s as
flat as a three week old glass of Prosecco when compared to the double diamond gradient of the Fiat off road course. Yet Hill Descent Control made short work of it, you need to make a leap of faith to engage HDC, roll over a precipice and then let it control the brakes. Your instinct is to press the middle pedal but to do so would be foolish. It would disengage the system and leave you struggling with the situation. Leave yourself in the hands of the mechanics and electronics and you’ll be fine.
Fiat also provided a mud bath, a treatment unlike anything you’d find at Neal’s Yard on Northcote Road to emulate fording a river. The car has been designed with such manoeuvres in mind and the air intakes are high in the engine bay. Driving through muddy water half way up the doors was no problem. Which is just as well because I would not have wanted to get out in the middle.
The driving position is good, and vision excellent. Being a little taller than most compact cars helps. The gear lever is a little high and far forward, but well in reach and the handbrake oddly shaped. There is a price to be paid in its being easy to park, and that is the rear legroom. You’ll get an adult in the back but it’s not somewhere to spend too much time. If your vision is Fulham to Flaine the Fiat is
just what you want so long as there are only two of you. Four up, with ski equipment – even using the roof rails for extra storage – is going to be a bit too cosy.
It’s notable that in all the presentations Fiat didn’t talk about fuel economy, however the twin-air is a frugal engine adding four wheel drive makes it less impressive than other small cars but the numbers are nothing to be ashamed of the twin air only manages a fuel consumption of 47.9mpg on the urban cycle, 65.7 on the extra urban cycle and 57.6mpg on the combined). The diesel clocks in at 56.4mpg on the urban cycle, 61.4 on the extra urban cycle and 60.1mpg on the combined cycle. The CO2 Emissions are 125 g/km diesel and 114 g/km for the petrol engine.
Fiat expect sales to be 50:50 with the twin-air costing £15,945 and the diesel costing £16,945 although even from the off Fiat said there will be deals to be done on financing and insurance.
The UK will be the first country in the world to get the Fiat Panda Cross with a launch in September to take advantage of the new “64” numberplates. All you have to do is decide if you want to adopt one of these puppies.