Motors: Fiat Will Panda to Off-Roader Tastes; Fiat Panda

Article excerpt

Byline: By BILL McCARTHY

THE anti-4x4 brigade is going to be left with mud on its face after a city slicker defected to join the ranks of the off-roaders.

The Fiat Panda, voted Car of the Year in 2004 and renowned as a high- class supermini, has been beefed up and given four wheel drive.

It is no gimmick, either, for this version of the Panda, complete with raised suspension and chunkier looks, has real mud-plugging potential.

Aimed at the motorist who wants maximum ability from a small car, the Panda 4x4 is one of two additions to Fiat's baby line up.

The other is a super-economical diesel model which is not only capable of achieving more than 60 miles per gallon but is also the quickest in the range.

Both hit the showrooms this week with the diesel priced at pounds 7,895 and the 4x4 at pounds 9,195 which makes it the most expensive of the current Panda line up.

But the 4x4 is an exceptional little car - as was demonstrated when the Panda was put through its paces on a purpose-built off-road track usually used to test out the rugged qualities of a Land Rover Discovery.

The Panda has good ground clearance and the shape of the front and rear bumpers enables it to deal with fairly severe obstacles. Should it bottom out the car is fitted with underside protection.

Powered by the same 60bhp 1.2-litre petrol engine used in conventional Pandas, four wheel drive is engaged automatically should the car's onboard sensors detect a loss in traction from one of the driven wheels.

In normal use the 4x4 is front wheel drive but the switch to four wheel drive is instantaneous. Drive off the road and onto a muddy track and the Panda will handle the change in surface without any problem.

There are no low ratio gears and everything about the 4x4 has been designed to keep it simple yet effective. It even comes with higher grade tyres as standard to help it tackle harsh conditions.

The most noticeable difference between the 4x4 and any other 1.2-litre Panda is that it feels heavier and the ride is stiffer. The more robust tread on the tyres also causes extra road noise.

It is also heavier and that is reflected in the 20 seconds it takes to accelerate from 0 to 60mph as opposed to the 15.8 seconds of the two wheel drive version and a reduction in average fuel economy from 50. …