Fiat Panda 4x4: our test drive on the snow

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Over the years, the Fiat Panda 4×4 has made a name for itself as one of the best cars to take on the difficult conditions of the mountains, one that wouldn’t feel out of place in an urban environment either. Well-thought ride height and permanent four-wheel drive are the strong points of this tiny Italian car, which in certain tough situations has just little or nothing to envy to the much expensive and heavy Hummers and the likes. The Panda 4×4 is comfortable, functional and almost unstoppable. The model will be made available with two engines options, with Fiat selling it in Italy with prices starting at € 16,950.

We tried the new Fiat Panda 4×4 both on- and off-road in Madonna di Campiglio - a renowned ski resort in northern Italy - taking it on long stretches of uneven ice and snow, focusing on the response of its 1.3-liter Multijet diesel engine (credited with an output of 75 hp with 190 Nm of torque) which, in combination with the short gear ratios, allows the Panda 4×4 to take on even the most challenging climbs with ease.

Its unquestionable off-road skills though are just part of the story as the new Fiat Panda 4×4 is also way better than its predecessor as far as the interior is concerned, both in terms of quality and comfort. Since the model has lost nothing of its off-road attitude, we already know that the new Panda 4×4 is a clear improvement over the outgoing generation, but we wanted to find out just how much you can push it on the twisty and snowy roads of the Italian side of the Alps, and this is exactly what we did.

Fiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test drive

Fiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test drive

Ice and Snow: you just can’t stop it

Fiat Panda 4x4: snow test drive

Our test got started on a large square covered in snow where we just did some stop-and-go and tried to have the car going sideways, which allowed us to appreciate the combined work of the ELD (Electronic Locking Differential) and all-wheel drive systems. When the grip is that poor, you can feel better the sort of benefits the ELD brings to the table, which improves the stability of the car and, by extension, its safety. Driving smoothly and dosing the gas, the small Panda turned out to be quite fun to drive on the snow, allowing the driver to dare a little bit with a certain confidence.

The excellent grip on snow is also due to its standard 175/65 R15 M+S all-season tires which, in combination with the aforementioned raised ride height and four wheel drive configuration, are key-factors in making the Fiat Panda 4×4 capable of the unthinkable: snow, ice, mud, you name it, but you can rest assured that with the addition of just a little bit of careful driving this gritty machine can take you anywhere, and without hesitation.

Fiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test drive

The ELD is designed to improve the adherence of the Fiat Panda 4×4 to the ground in difficult situations, and is definitely more helpful when moving rather than when you need to start from a standstill. The all-wheel drive system works jointly with this electronic aid - whose action is mainly concentrated on the rear axle - so that even those drivers who are not that familiar with off-road routes can face the most critical surfaces such as wet grass, snow and mud with enough confidence. However, once the ELD is on, you need to accelerate without hesitation whenever the car loses grip: just remember that the 4×4 indicator light on the dashboard will inform you that the ELD is up and running and will act on the rear axle to let you go ahead unfazed.

We got the chance to experience that on the large snowy square we mentioned earlier on: cornering with the ELD off means that some understeering will just be there, no doubt about that. Just eneble the Electronic Locking Differential - which works at speeds up to 50 km/h (31 mph) - and it is an altogether different story: the rear axle pushes hard to help you completing the turn without compromising the desired line, and if there is some understeering there is just because you desperately asked for it on purpose. The Torque On Demand system - with two differentials and electronic coupling - works very well, just like the ELD that, when moving, pulls the brakes of the wheels that lose traction in order to get the car literally back on track and give more torque to the wheels with more grip.

Fiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test drive

Then we moved on to the challenging roads linking Madonna di Campiglio to the nice town of Pinzolo, where we found a whole variety of typical off road conditions: mud, dirt, small streams, snow, black ice, the whole lot, and guess what? In every situation the Fiat Panda 4×4 just did the job without problems. Climbing up a steep and icy slope showed us once again just how efficient the ELD system actually is, allowing us to get on the top of it without any sort of issue. However, to exploit the car properly, the driver needs to proceed with no fear, keeping up a good pace while being smooth with steering and throttle. Never act roughly on either of these two when driving on the snow, that’s one of those obscure golden rules you must never forget.

When it came to taste the gravel, we found it a little difficult to maintain the second gear on tight bends. The first gear is indeed very short, which is brilliant when you need some teeth with a problematic hill start or difficult stretches, but the gap with the second, at least at low speeds on dirt, is quite frankly a bit too high. However, if you find it to difficult to face certain hairpin corners with the second gear, just use first one and you will see that the car will actually try to cut it. Just like a proper offroad vehicle.

Fiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test drive

On the road: agility and loads of grip

Fiat Panda 4x4: snow test drive

On the wet and often frozen road surfaces of the winter - especially at high altitude - the Fiat Panda 4×4 has proven to be extremely safe and agile. The typical drops of grip that can happen on such roads are promptly corrected by the ESP and the ASR (Anti Slip Regulation) systems, both of which come into action only when some help is required. As a result, the loss of grip takes place progressively and can be easily perceived by the driver, who can correct the car before getting close to a dangerous threshold.

On mountain roads the new Fiat Panda 4×4 proved to be comfortable, lively and pretty energetic. As already pointed out, the short ratios of the gearbox (especially as far as the first three gears are concerned) play a very important role with this car, and that is a crucial part of the philosophy behind it: even with four passengers on board, the Panda 4×4 can easily go up a slope despite the power of just 75 hp. Its 190 Nm of torque help a lot coming out of the hairpin turns, sprinting away quite quickly. On the other hand, in certain situations you might not understand what is the right gear to use, but it is just a matter of getting used to the car and the way it behaves.

Fiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test driveFiat Panda 4x4: snow test drive

Body roll during cornering is not excessive, the Fiat Panda 4×4 proved to be stable enough for a car with that ride height and tires of that diameter (and section of 175 mm). Only when you force the pace a little bit you feel the car slightly getting out of the way, but that always happens in a progressive manner if the road conditions are good, so you are never caught off guard. Going down a slope the engine brake is definitely helpful to slow the car, and once you get to know how to exploit it properly it can be very useful to maintain a smooth drive without the jolts due to braking.

Smooth, sleek and comfortable, the new Fiat Panda 4×4 turns out to be a pretty user-friendly machine, way more than the previous generations. It feels like a somewhat ‘regular’ road car, almost hiding its true off-road nature: you need to get off the tarmac to discover what it is really capable of. In a nutshell, the Panda 4×4 is just perfect in every situation.

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The interior: comfortable and functional

Fiat Panda 4x4: snow test drive

Usually, off-road-oriented cars come with skinny and minimal interiors, not very comfortable maybe but extremely functional. However, the new Fiat Panda 4×4 is an exception to that unwritten rule as it combines the typical features of most offroad vehicles with cozy interiors and a pretty good trim. This atypical A-segment model boasts good quality finish, decent plastics and has been put together really well. There are a few bits that might come across as ‘too simple’ or ‘not very nice’, but all in all there is nothing to worry about as its equipment is basically all-comprehensive.

The modern and elegant design of the interior is almost identical to what we can find inside the front-wheel drive Panda: when you sit behind the steering wheel, the only difference that can be detected right away is about the seat, which is higher off the ground than usual. Then, looking closely, there are other small differences that can be spotted, like the button on the dashboard that activates the ELD to maximize the performance of the car in offroad conditions. The passenger compartment is actually quite roomy and can easily accommodate four people: the tallest guys can find a comfortable position on both rows of seats, with no need to tilt their heads at any time.

Fiat Panda 4x4 Motor Show Bologna 2012Fiat Panda 4x4 Motor Show Bologna 2012Fiat Panda 4x4 Motor Show Bologna 2012Fiat Panda 4x4 Motor Show Bologna 2012

Seats are stiff but quite comfortable, ca be adjusted in a number of ways but are not really well profiled: getting in or out of the car is not a problem, but they feel a little ‘too flat’ in the fast corners, meaning that your body tends towards the outside a little too much. Legroom for the driver is also a little tight, but once you get used to it you learn to place the knee on the inside closer to the center console, a tip that can be especially useful on motorways. The steering, especially in ‘City’ mode, is never too hard or tiring, not even when the car is not moving. On uneven surfaces the steering absorbs most of the imperfections of the road with ease, never giving the impression of being too hard to control.

When traveling at low speed, the 1.3-liter Multijet diesel engine of the Panda we tested was actually quite silent, and we understand that 85 hp petrol TwinAir option is just as quiet. Its standard set-up allows you to travel in peace without having to worry too much about the holes on the road, while the sound of the engine can actually be heard in the cabin, but that’s quite a common feature for almost all the cars of this segment. Driven at high speeds, let’s say over the 100 km/h mark (62mph), the sound and whistles of the wind - caused mainly by the wing mirrors - can be clearly heard inside the Panda: a little annoying perhaps, but definitely not as harassing as with some other models we tested in the past. The engine is a little more noisy in comparison with the other ‘regular’ Panda variants, but that’s also because of the short ratios of the gearbox, which we defined as one of its strong points. Well, you cannot always have it all, can you?

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