Whereas the choice for small 4x4s used to be limited to the capable-but-utilitarian Suzuki Jimny and the R300k-plus Renault 1.5dCi Dynamique 4WD, the flagship 0.9 4x4 Cross derivative of the Fiat Panda range offers light hatchback practicality and a modicum of off-road capability.
We like: Cheeky ready-for-action attitude, nonconformist appeal, generous spec.
We don’t like: top-heavy handling, ageing cabin design, marginal build quality.
- Jeep on the cheap: If genuine off-road ability is a prerequisite and willing on-road performance and practicality of secondary concern, consider the Suzuki Jimny 1.3. It does not offer much in the way of creature comforts, but it’s singular in its purpose and backed by a 2-time #CarsAwards Brand of the Year.
- Compact family car with more: In a sea of crossover compact family cars, the soon-to-be-replaced Renault Duster 1.5dCi Dynamique 4WD does not only look as if will go off road, it can. Spacious and reasonably well specced, the Duster feels its advanced age in many ways, yet offers good value.
- Indian battle tank: The rear-wheel-driven Mahindra TUV300 T8 looks every bit the off-roader and theoretically, offers seating for 7. Endowed with a raised ride height, good spec and a reasonably punchy motor, the affordable TUV300 should cope with most gravel routes with reasonable ease.
- The dark horse: Although the Haval H2 1.5T City is 2-wheel-driven and not purported to be an off-roader, it offers family car spaciousness, strong kerb appeal, fair quality and 1.5-litre turbopetrol performance for less than all the other cars listed here bar the Mahindra. It’s a veritable bargain.
The easiest way to distinguish the 4x4 Cross from its siblings is obviously the expansive black cladding, but also the high-set DRLs.
Facts & Figures
Price: R262 900 (March 2018)
Engine: 0.9-litre turbo petrol two-cylinder
Power/Torque: 66 kW/145 Nm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Fuel consumption: 4.9 L/100 km (claimed)
0-100 kph: 12.0 secs
Top speed: 167 kph
Boot capacity: 225-870 litres
The 0.9 TwinAir Cross and its lesser-specced 4x4 sibling, joins the Easy and Lounge derivatives with the re-introduction of the Panda range, now post facelift and decidedly in the latter half of its product cycle. All versions are powered by the 66 kW 0.9-litre 2-cylinder turbopetrol engine and whereas the lower derivatives operate on the fringe of the compact hatchback segment and trade on their added practicality and the promise of low operating costs, the 4x4 versions offer boutique (or is that glamping?) appeal by virtue of their boosted ride height, rugged-looking exterior packaging and part-time all-wheel drive, which is particularly handy in a lightweight off-roader. When the Cross and 4x4 versions were introduced, a local dealership in Cape Town famously set up demonstrations for the cars’ off-the-beaten-track prowess on a course usually reserved for testing Jeep derivatives…
The test unit came additionally equipped with 15-inch alloys, a stainless steel exhaust tip and roof rails with bicycle racks.
Distinct looks, cheeky character
The best thing about the way the Panda looks, which is not necessarily to everybody’s taste, is that the 4x4 Cross can justify its up-on-stilts stance, raised daytime running lamp clusters, Swiss-cheese-pattern front apron and swathes of black plastic cladding. The test unit supplied to Cars.co.za further came equipped with a Panda roof rail and bicycle rack accessory, which certainly looked purposeful.
We found that the dual-tone effect created by the contrast between the exterior finish and the black cladding (plus window and pillar trims) worked best with bright, non-metallic colours, such as red, yellow and, of course, white (how Panda!). The 15-inch alloy wheels (optional, steel wheels are standard) add a touch of luxury to the hatchback’s appearance and bear in mind there is a variety of extra-cost exterior (and interior) trim bits with which to accessorise and personalise the car.
Although the workmanlike interior of the 4x4 Cross still features the now-dated squircles design theme (square-shaped circles, most apparent in the ventilation and climate control cluster, the instrumentation pods, and the steering wheel control pods), beneath the fascia’s basic appearance hides a comprehensive specification, including climate control, electric and heated side mirrors, a leather multi-function steering wheel, a Uconnect Bluetooth-compatible audio system (with music streaming and app support, which makes the standard smartphone cradle especially handy).
The leather-trimmed multifunction steering wheel is nicely sized; note the "squircles" design motif on the fascia and dashboard.
Pairing one’s smartphone involves using the steering wheel controls and voice prompts, which is a bit fussy and, as welcome as the automatic air-con is, the positioning of the diminutive ventilation outlets limits the effectiveness of the system. Should any fluids need to be topped up (such as oil, which we dutifully added) or the tyre pressure monitor be reset, you need to cancel the warning messages through a specific sequence of the commands on the trip computer, which is a drag.
Still, the 4x4 Cross comes equipped with many safety features. ABS with EBD, electronic stability- and vehicle dynamic control (all of which enable the Drive Mode Selector to offer Auto, Off-Road and Gravity (hill descent) Control modes), is backed by rear parking sensors, front-, side and curtain airbags. The 60/40-split rear seatback has ISOfix child seat anchor points and avails useful utility space when folded down, for when you need to pack extra detritus for off-road excursions.
Although the Panda will automatically engage 4WD when circumstances demand it, the Drive Mode selector also affords "Gravity Control" mode.
Genuine off-road ability
Fiat had enough confidence in the 4x4 Cross’ prowess to introduce it to the automotive media on a challenging off-road course (replete with a mishap, but that was probably attributable to driver error), but even if you are not a member of the small-but-passionate group of enthusiasts to have campaigned a Panda on the rough stuff, it’s easy to see why the Fiat is more than capable in low-grip conditions. By virtue of its low weight, appreciable ride height, negligible overhangs, willing engine (what little torque it has, is available from low rpm) and light controls, the Panda will deal with most moderate off-road obstacles with little fret or fuss. It’s loads of fun!
We used the Drive Mode selector to test the Panda’s auto (which utilises the rear wheels for traction only when required) and off-road modes on a stretch of dirt road and found the road holding and stability of the car admirable; the system will undoubtedly be a boon on wet asphalt routes as well.
The smartphone cradle to take the hassle out of following app-driven satellite navigation instructions, the my:Car app is also available.
Marginal build quality
Although a strict critique of the Panda’s build quality seems trifling given the fact that the vehicle is positioned at the budget end of the compact hatchback market, a car that is claimed to be capable of sustaining hard use needs to feel as if it could handle whatever hard work it is tasked to carry out.
Overall the Fiat’s cabin is comfortable enough, but its doors feel overly light, the plastic edges of the fascia (around the oddment recess ahead of the front passenger) have a rough finish and the switchgear is bereft of a reassuring weightiness. Furthermore, the floor of the luggage area felt prone to warping/incapable of sustaining heavy articles and at freeway speeds, we noticed more than a fair degree of wind noise emanating from the front side window/side mirror areas.
The Panda's front seats are some of the more comfortable examples at this price point. The plastic finishes are a bit rough, however.
Compromised on-road performance
First, the good news. As opposed to the previous 1.2- and 1.4-litre normally aspirated engines, the (award-winning) 0.9-litre turbopetrol 2 delivers its peak torque at 1 900 rpm, which means its user needs to stir the gearbox smartly to get the best out of the motor, which has a pleasing growly note. Thanks to start-stop technology and shift indicators in the instrument panel, a measured driving style should help drivers achieve an average fuel consumption in the early-7.0 L/100 km region with ease.
Yes, the 4x4 Cross is capable of cruising comfortably at the national freeway speed limit, but getting there requires patience. In the absence of a low-range transfer case, the Panda’s first gear is short to facilitate pulling away in tricky off-road conditions and, like most small capacity turbo motors, the Fiat does not like to creep in traffic (or congested parking lots) at low revs, were it will baulk and threaten to stall. What’s more, if you attempt to make the Panda corner with enthusiasm, be prepared to suffer the consequence of a high centre of gravity and relatively skinny tyres, because the body tends to yaw by virtue of the raised height and palpably soft suspension.
Added ride height and reasonably plump tyres endow the Panda with a pliant ride quality.
A very niche offering
While there is no argument that the Panda is well packaged for someone who seeks the practicality and affordability of a compact hatchback in combination with genuine off-road ability, we have to wonder how big that market is, in actual fact. Yes, it’s refreshing to find a product that “does exactly what it says on the tin” (as the saying goes) – the 4x4 Cross is proudly an “anticrossover” – bravo!
As Fiat does not have a big dealer footprint in the rural areas of our country, the Panda will therefore appeal mostly to townsfolk who may occasionally exploit its off-road abilities (or, at least, believe that they could wade into the wild with their Fiats whenever the mood takes them). Can the price that the 4x4 Cross commands be justified if its all-road capability is bound to be called upon only on special occasions? As the list of alternatives atop this review attests, there are more spacious compact family cars without the all-wheel drive that could rough it a little if they absolutely had to…
Price and after-sales support
The Fiat Panda 0.9 TwinAir 4x4 Cross costs R262 900, which includes a 3-year/100 000 km warranty and a 3-year/100 000 km service plan, which is great in terms of distance, but middling in duration.
The Panda 0.9 TwinAir 4x4 Cross is one of those off-road-styled compact hatchbacks that have the ability to back up its looks.
Although this review seems to praise the flagship Panda derivative for its pugnacious looks and nifty features, while criticising its budget-price build quality and on-road compromises, there is no doubt that the 4x4 Cross embodies fun and feistiness better than most products on the market, let alone those priced around it. For those who fall in love with its plucky charm, the Fiat’s shortcomings will be outweighed by its charisma and, indeed, strengths.
Just bear in mind that the Italian marque’s middling ranking in the Cars.co.za Consumer Satisfaction survey disadvantages the Panda compared with more conventional (even “boring”) offerings from most rival manufacturers… Once the (very) novel appeal of the 4x4 Cross has faded, you’ll have to live with the hatchbacks quirks and foibles. Having said that, the prospect of having myriad fun-filled adventures with your Panda is undeniably an enticing one.