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Date: 02 Jan 2018 Author Type: Public Review
Author: Julian Lurie Edited by Liam Mothilall
Source: Julian Lurie
Fiat’s tradition of being a small car manufacturer began in 1938 with the 500, known as the ‘Topolino’, and as my very first car was a 1952 Topolino 500, the brand has always been close to my heart. Since launching locally in 2013, the Panda range has expanded from the Easy and Lounge versions in conventional front wheel drive (4x2) for the city car, to include the 4x4 and Cross versions, so-called City SUVs. The model featured in these road impressions is the top of the range Panda Cross 4x4.

The Panda 4x4 lives up to its name by its rugged look with off-road-styled bumpers, aluminium skid plate, raised ride height, front and rear bumpers, more prominent side moulding, “CROSS” side-badging, twin black roof rails, LED day-running-lights and the press vehicle was fitted with 15” alloy wheels wrapped in GoodYear 185/65R15 “mud and snow” all weather tyres, and there’s a space-saver spare under the boot-board.

A funky, airy cabin features a large center console that keeps most controls – including the gearlever – within easy reach. The raised driving position isn’t to all tastes, but does provide a good all-round view. The steering column is adjustable for tilt but not for rake, the driver’s seat is manually height adjustable and the heated wing mirrors are electrically adjustable. Most of the plastics and fabrics used in the interior are of reasonable quality and appear well put together. The tall body ensures plenty of head room all round, and there’s ample leg room up front and at the rear, however despite this, if the front passenger has his seat adjusted right back, then rear leg room is a bit tight.

Storage for oddments is provided for in the large front door pockets and small rear ones, in an open shelf ahead of the passenger, a smallish cubby below and cup-holders in the floor console. The rear tail-gate opens high and wide to reveal a smallish 225 litre boot, but capacity can be increased by folding down the 60/40 split rear seat backrest. A wash/wiper is mounted on the outside glass. A new innovation is that there’s an uConnect app that you can download for your smartphone, which can then be mounted in a holder on the dashboard. That allows you to use your phone as an extension of the car’s infotainment system, including getting servicing and maintenance alerts, integrating the phone via Bluetooth, using audio streaming and playing through four speakers. Standard features include automatic air conditioning, front electric windows, trip computer, 4-spoke multi-function flat bottom leather covered steering wheel, and the all-wheel drive system with a three-mode terrain response selector, activated by the rotary knob on the floor console.

As in the 4x2, the instrument cluster is somewhat retro, and I liked the way the gear-lever sprouted out from the floor console. The squared-off gauges for the speedo, marked to 210 km/h and rev counter marked red at 6 500 rpm, are clear and easy to read.

Safety equipment includes four airbags, Isofix child seat, rear parking sensors, Stop/start system, hill decent control, central door locking and immobilizer, disc brakes and electronic stability control.

The new Panda is powered by Fiat’s twin air turbo-charged Euro 6 rated two cylinder 875cc in-line petrol engine, making 66.2 kw at 5 500 rpm and 145 Nm of torque at 1 900 rpm with drive to all four wheels through a 6-speed manual gearbox. According to the spec sheet the Fiat Panda Lounge front wheel drive will accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in 12 seconds after four gear changes, having a top speed of 167 km/h and an average petrol consumption of just 4.9 litres per 100 kms in the combined cycle.

As for economy, the 2-cylinder Twin Air ‘s figures of 4.9 litres per 100 kms looks very attractive on paper, but is virtually impossible to achieve in normal driving, not even in ECO mode. According to the trip recorder, I averaged 7.5 litres per 100 kms on a 20 km economy test run but perhaps that figure could be improved to just under seven. The tank holds 37 litres. The Panda Cross defines a new type of vehicle in the segment. As its name implies, the Panda Cross is able to traverse difficult terrain thanks to its permanent all-wheel drive system and Electronic Locking Differential. The transmission has a shortened first gear to accentuate the model's off-road features, ensuring optimum hill starts. The shortened first gear is also useful in tackling more difficult terrain, allowing the vehicle to proceed slowly at engine idling speed, ensuring the maximum vehicle control typical of off-road models.

The Twin Air turbo is quite versatile. You can drive it for economy and change up at amazingly low revs, but it’s more fun to drive using the revs. Around town, the gearing fluctuates between holding too many revs and too few, which leaves you frequently swapping cogs, but it really is fun to drive. On my usual off-road testing course, the Panda Cross handled all the same obstacles that I’ve used for testing large 4x4 bakkies and SUVs, and also the suspension and road holding in the dirt and I came away most impressed, as with its approach angle of 24°, departure angle of 34° and break-over angle of 21°, it never bogged down, absorbed bigger bumps and ruts well enough; and never bottomed out. For driving around town, you’ll use mostly the first three gears, but travelling on the freeways at 120 km/h in 6th gear, the motor revs at 3 400 revs, while for overtaking or driving up long inclines, selecting 4th gear will help keep up the momentum.

It’s a tall, narrow car, so there is some body roll through the corners but nothing serious, while the long wheelbase - relative to the overall length - means that the Panda is surprisingly good fun to chuck about, and is quite stable and sure-footed as well. In the city, the small turning circle and the light steering, especially in CITY mode,is great for parking, but it’s also a bit vague, but it’s fast and feels good, and makes the Panda an agile little companion. Priced at R249 900, the price includes a 3 year/100 000 km warranty and service plan.
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