22 Apr 2015

A vicarious first look: 2015 Fiat Panda 4x4

After a bit of a hiatus confronting a few demons in my life I’m back and feeling inspired. In this post I will be exploring adventuring of the four-wheeled variety vicariously through the eyes of one of my closest friends Federico (Fed), a photographer and designer who lives near Milan, Italy.

Fed has had his fair share of adventure travel himself, with excursions across northern Africa, around Turkey and beyond. These adventures have been of Land Rover pedigree—the most cultured variety, of course, the age-old and immensely capable Defender, definitely not one of the usual footballer’s (wives’) Range Rovers.

Fed takes to the northern Italian fields in the Defender

The tiny Fiat Panda 4x4 is, on the surface, a city car with a four wheel drive system crowbarred into its tiny chassis—but it is also a car with a quiet heritage of its own. It debuted to great success in 1980 with the 4x4 version following in 1983, unique because it was the first vehicle of its type on the market—a tiny, inexpensive, four-wheel-drive vehicle with raised suspension which made the small Suzuki Samurai seem bloated and heavy. It was instantly popular in rural, mountainous areas where its small size and sturdy chassis made it invaluable to farmers who needed to reach fields otherwise inaccessible with larger, expensive SUVs—or indeed to get to town on snow-covered, steep mountain roads in the wintertime.

Fast-forward 30-odd years and the latest Panda 4x4, now in its third generation, is in a different league from the crude but sturdy original. It is built on the Fiat Mini platform which is shared with the Fiat 500, Lancia Ypsilon and Ford Ka—all cars noted for being safe for their class, strong and fun to drive.

Fed’s new Panda 4x4 with the 85 hp/145 N·m TwinAir turbocharged petrol engine arrived yesterday, fresh out of the factory in Pomigliano d'Arco just hours away from his home near Milan. It is a fully kitted-out model, the only option of note excluded being the City Brake Control system which automatically stops the car if it senses an imminent collision at speeds between 5 and 30 km/hr. He chose the muted solid (non-metallic) cappuccino paintwork colour because he wanted the car to blend into its environment, not stand out—this car will be seeing quite a lot of field road and off-road duty during its life.

The Panda replaces his previous everyday car, a Fiat Punto. During Fed’s maiden journey, I took notes of his first impressions thanks to VoIP technology (aka handsfree FaceTime Audio).

So why is he so excited about this small, inexpensive car?

Tall but small with rounded-square (or ‘squircle’) design themes throughout—the Panda’s chunky design stands out against the usual suspects in the city car category

Raised suspension means plenty of ground clearance for rough terrian

Fed rang me as he walked out to the car for the first time around 11 at night. Approaching, he noted in flawless English and his slightly Nordic-sounding accent: “It’s so small! I love the design, every detail is considered—it looks beautiful.”

After unlocking the car with the remote, he got in (it’s important to note Fed is certainly not one of the vertically challenged, standing at 6’2”): “You step up into this car, it’s tall. There is far more room than expected inside. The seat feels very comfortable and you sit high up—almost like sitting on the car instead of in it, like a proper 4x4. The [leather] steering wheel feels very nice in hand—the shape isn’t quite round, but slightly squared off.”

There were a few less enthusiastic comments: “The headrests are typical Fiat—rock hard plastic. When the seat is in the correct position for me to use the pedals, the steering wheel is a little bit far away, and it only adjusts for rake, not for reach. It’s not too bad, but will take a little time to get used to.”

Starting up the Panda, Fed commented: “The [2-cylinder TwinAir] engine is very quiet and has a pleasant sound. The instrument panel looks beautiful but it isn’t as easy to read as the [previous] Punto. There are plenty of toys [buttons, onboard computer etc] to play with!”

Getting underway he said: “Wow, it’s much quicker than I expected—acceleration feels very alive. The engine is so smooth and refined and has such a nice sound. At half throttle it feels quicker than the Punto felt at full throttle. There is a lot of torque which makes the car relaxed to drive. The gearbox feels solid and precise.”

Once on some country roads Fed noted: “The steering isn’t as quick as the Punto and there is more body roll in the corners. The seats don’t have too much [lateral] support for hard cornering but the car isn’t intended for this anyway—the steering is slightly imprecise in the corners.

“The ride is beautiful, this car has a real sense of comfort. The suspension is more supple than [his dad’s] Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The visibility is much better than the Punto.”

Back home he had another look around: “The boot [trunk] is huge for such a small car. But the rear seat is tight—I don’t fit with the front seat in position for me to drive.”

Fed says good night to the Panda after their first bonding experience

I caught up with Fed today after he’d driven the Panda into Milan and back. One day on, he had a couple more notes: “I’ve been using the Eco button [which reduces power and torque to reduce fuel consumption] and the difference in performance is minimal in city traffic. I only have one real complaint about it—the upper dashboard reflects on the windscreen in the daytime.”

I suggested that Fed give it a couple days—the car is brand new and everything is still spotless and shining. Once a layer of dust settles on it (which will take no time in Italy) the reflection should reduce.

The Panda’s first time off-road :-)

Can someone accustomed to the king of off-road vehicles—the Land Rover Defender—really be satisfied with something so far at the other end of the scale? That gap may be smaller than it seems. In 2013 two Britons broke the world record for overlanding from Cape Town to London in a Panda 4x4 by a whole day—a record which was previously held, ironically, by a Defender (read about it here).

One thing in particular that Fed is excited about is the Panda’s tiny size and low weight, which enables it to go places the large and heavy Land Rover would have no hope in fitting. He is looking forward to experimenting with the Panda’s four-wheel-drive system—this includes an automatically actuated electronically coupling centre differential with a button for the driver to electronically simulate locking differentials (using the braking system) to transfer torque from wheels without grip to those with grip. A clever use of technology to keep costs (and weight) down.

I am looking forward to my next visit so Fed can take me around some rural areas and show me what the Panda can do.

Fed summarised his first 24 hours with the Panda by simply saying: “I have fallen in love with this car!”

2015 Fiat Panda 4x4 key specifications

875cc inline 2-cylinder with turbocharger
85 hp/145 N·m

6-speed gearbox + reverse
4x4 with automatic engagement

Front: Independent MacPherson struts
Rear: Semi-independent torsion beam

Front: Ventilated discs, 257 mm
Rear: Solid discs, 240 mm

15” alloy
175/65 R15 M+S

Length: 3,686 mm
Width: 1,672 mm
Height: 1,605 mm


0–100 km/hr (62 mph): 12.1s
Maximum speed: 103 mph (166 km/hr)

Urban: 47.9 mpg (5.9 l/100 km)
Extra-urban: 65.7 mpg (4.3 l/100 km)
Combined: 57.6 mpg (4.7 l/100 km)

114g CO2/km