► Rougher, tougher version of Panda 4x4
► Enhanced off-road go, Action Man styling
► Genuinely good off-road; not so good on it
The new Fiat Panda Cross is a tougher sibling to the already surprisingly tough little Fiat Panda 4x4. It’s not a new idea; just like the previous-generation Panda Cross of 2006, Fiat’s taken the Panda 4x4 and machoed it up with chunkier bumpers, plastic skid plates, red tow hooks and raised fog lights. You wouldn’t call it pretty, but it’s got character by the bagful and a certain Tonka Toy appeal.
Expect to pay around £1650 more for a Panda Cross than you would for a regular Panda 4x4 at present. Question is, should you?
Are all the changes to make a Panda Cross just cosmetic?
No, there are various upgrades to make sure the Cross can hike the hike. Ground clearance has been bumped up, the springs are different and those reshaped bumpers make for more accommodating approach and departure angles – gradients as severe as 70% are possible, says Fiat.
On both petrol and diesel versions the intake ducts have gone up in the world to allow a deeper wading depth, steel underbody shields fend off damage from pointier bits of terrain and the tyres have been swapped for knobblier mud and snow rubber.
Like the regular Panda 4x4, an electronic locking differential helps find traction on loose or slippery surfaces but the Cross also gets a few extra electronic tricks up its sleeve.
A new ‘Terrain Control Selector’ – a rotary dial behind the gearlever – gives you a choice of three driving modes: Auto, Off-Road and Hill Descent Control.
Auto is the default setting, and makes its own decision as to whether the engine’s torque is sent to the front or rear axles. In normal driving conditions, 98% of torque goes to the front wheels but if the Panda loses traction the system is designed to direct up to 100% to the rear in a tenth of a second if necessary.
In Off-Road mode, all four wheels are driven all the time (up to 30mph, anyway – beyond that the car reverts to front-drive mode to save fuel, in case you forget to switch back to Auto mode), the locking diff is engaged and the stability control system brakes slipping wheels to help find traction on uneven or low-grip surfaces.
Hill Descent Control safely controls the car’s speed down steep slopes – more on that in a bit.
What engines are available for the Fiat Panda Cross?
Same as the regular Panda 4x4, a simple choice between Fiat’s 1.3-litre ‘MultiJet’ diesel or titchy 0.9-litre two-cylinder turbo ‘TwinAir’ petrol. Both have had a minor boost in power, so the diesel now puts out 89bhp and the TwinAir 79bhp.
Fiat claims average fuel consumption of over 57mpg for the TwinAir (good luck) and 60mpg for the diesel while CO2 emissions are rated at 114g/km and 125g/km respectively.
Both come with manual gearboxes, a five-speed for the diesel and six for the TwinAir, with an extra low first gear for off-road driving.
So, can it off-road?
We drove the Cross on the off-road course at Fiat’s Balocco proving ground where it scampered over some fairly severe obstacles. Climbing’s not a problem, and when you need to get down again Hill Descent Control can take care of things for you. Stick it in neutral, keep your feet off the pedals and it’ll inch its way down the slope by itself. Disconcerting, but it works. Ride quality’s surprisingly cushy over rough ground, too.
We also crossed Balocco’s concrete mounds (imagine a sea of giant, solid bubble wrap) diagonally in Off-Road mode, where the microchips kept the car moving by taking power away from the wheels dangling in fresh air and directing it to the ones on terra firma.
And what’s it like on the tarmac?
Bad news is, the Panda Cross is more impressive off-road than on. The raised ride height means it sways like a swingometer on election night, and the body roll’s emphasised all the more because you sit so high up. Thing is, you often feel you’re travelling faster than you are anyway as the mud and snow tyres squeal like you’re on a qualifying lap when in reality you’re meandering gently around a roundabout.
Fiat claims the Cross benefits from improved sound-proofing over the regular 4x4, but you wouldn’t think so after a drive in the gruff, boomy diesel. The buzzbox TwinAir’s actually far quieter.
Although the diesel’s pleasant enough to drive with a more progressive, less laggy delivery than some derv motors, the TwinAir suits the Cross’s character better – it’s a fun engine for a fun car. Subjectively, it also seemed to ride and handle a little better than the diesel. The vagaries of weight distribution and all that.
A bargain small off-roader or an overpriced Panda? Depends on your point of view. It’s genuinely capable off-road, great in the city (no speed bump too big, no multi-storey too steep, no parking space too small) but in all honesty a bit rubbish on the open road.
An ordinary Panda 4x4 is cheaper, can manage nearly as well off-road and is more tolerable on it. For the majority of buyers it’ll make more sense than the Cross, likeable though it is.