Review: 2013 Fiat Panda 1.3 Multijet 4×4

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So, it was finally time that I got my hands on an Italian thoroughbred for a review, and the kindly folks at Fiat were happy to oblige. As it happens, I’ve wanted to drive one of these for a long time.

I’ve been a Panda-lover ever since a schoolfriend’s mum had a ’90 Bianca special edition, with the 1000cc FIRE engine. But the things about it that loved the most was the acres of bare, painted metal; the metallic clang of the door closure and the way it was all styled with absolutely no regard for fashion, elegance or beauty; but almost undivided attention to geometry, utility and simplicity.

Of course, fashions change. Has Fiat stuck to its guns in preserving the no-nonsense character of the original, or have they been forced to pander to consumer expectations?

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Fiat offered a 4×4 version of the Panda back in the ’80s. It was basically a Steyr-Puch (they of the somewhat phenomenal Hafliger all-terrain do-whatever-you-likemobile) mechanical package with Fiat Panda bodywork draped over it, and then reinforced so that things like suspension mounts didn’t go TWANG when you crested your first big muddy hill. The 4×4 was a brutally effective little tool for people who didn’t have much cash, not enough for a Land Rover, for example, but still needed to go between here and there directly, horrible crappy surfaces notwithstanding.

Yes, a Suzuki SJ would probably be moderately more effective in this capacity, but would also dislodge all your bones and make you hate life altogether should you make the mistake of driving it on the road every now and again. The SJ, at heart, is more agricultural than a combine harvester.

The Panda, though, in 4×4 trim, was almost like a severely simplified first-generation Range Rover, and was only really beaten in the giant-killing stakes by the Lada Niva. And the Russian contraption, though awesome in its own way, was never even slightly fashionable, let alone chic the way the Panda became. Fiat quickly seized on this opportunity, and quickly got together with the Sisley jeans brand to create the Panda Sisley 4×4, which gained a smattering of stick-on fashion trinkets from the bargain, and sold very well indeed, soon becoming a permanent fixture in the range.

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When the New Panda arrived in 2003, there was initially no all wheel drive variety made available, though Fiat eventually bowed to popular demand and, in 2004, there was finally a Panda back on sale which could follow the Range Rovers into the jungle. Or, rather, sit there and spin its wheels in the wet grass.

Yes, you could see what the car was all about from a hundred yards away, even if you weren’t really looking at it very attentively and had your mind on other things, while drunk. You could immediately see that there was no rock-straddling high ground clearance, you could see that the tyres were somewhat road-biased, and, worse, the chances are the car you were looking at was wearing alloy wheels.

The 4×4 had become, effectively, the top-of-the-range Panda; the furthest upmarket. As such, it had to be dressed for the part. The mission parameters had changed rather. 4×4 was still relevant in as much as it gave better traction when conditions went shit-shaped; think of it as an all-weather car. But it had also become a miniature SUV, and the roster of available equipment was becoming ever longer.

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And that brings us to today. We have here a Fiat Panda 1.3 Multijet 4×4. The Multijet bit there signifies that the engine is one of those oil-fired ones that Rudolf invented, and its that bit of the car that I’m going to speak about first.

I’m a bit of a diesel sceptic, if I’m honest. Yes, a big capacity multi-cylinder diesel can make a great noise and provide a wondrous amount of shove; the current 535D is probably the finest overtaking weapon I can name off the top of my head and I would pull out my toenails if it meant I could spend a day with an M550d and its three turbochargers. But when all is said and done; diesels, by and large, bore me. They excel in torque, and in my opinion torque is less exciting than power. Think of a Honda S2000, then imagine it with a diesel engine of equivalent power that only revs to 4500. Zzzz.

Here, though, it seems exactly the right lump for the job. The 75 horses are ample for a car that is, in essence, a city machine and the extra torque over a petrol engine takes the edge off the extra mechanical drag that four wheel drive entails. Of course the car need not be run in 4×4 mode; it is electronically clutched in and out from a rear differential on the first breath of a whim, and you don’t really feel the difference in normal driving. For the vast majority of motorists the Panda; ANY Panda will live its life at low to middling revs, and here a diesel engine makes plenty of sense. As a bonus, it has a sort of rough and ready sonic charm to it that helps remind you that the character of the 4×4 is very different to the rest of the Panda family.

Before that power is divided between front and rear axles it passes through a five-speed gearbox of routine feel and foolproof operation. There is no snatching or baulking, and at no point did I stall, which is a hazard that sometimes catches me out when I jump from petrol to diesel and expect to be able to pull away on very few revs via judicious use of the clutch. No fuss here, though. It’s as if the whole plot has been developed for ease of use by unskilled drivers. This courtesy extends to the steering which features Fiats proven “girly mode” with a choice of two levels of power steering assistance. Neither offers much feedback, but the action isn’t that inaccurate that I demand a refund under the sale of goods act on the basis of miss-description.

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As befitting its useful-in-all-conditions status, the 4×4 is shod in Continental all-season tyres. The robust tread pattern of these hoops contributes plenty road noise to the cabin ambiance, but nothing unbearable. The ride quality is softer than you might expect if you base your assumptions on previous Pandas you may have travelled in, then you remember that this can be easily accounted for when you remember the extra travel in the suspension over the 2WD models. Indeed, there is an increase of 50mm in ride height. Maybe this won’t be so bad in the sticky stuff after all?

Now for an admission; Fiat offered me the chance to try the Panda out on a moderate off-road course, and I should have bitten their arms off. I should have grabbed the opportunity to judge the little beastie against my own memories of the Austrian-engineered original. But I didn’t, for which I’m sorry. I truly am. That said, the city route that I did take was somewhat representative of what most people who take a Panda captive are most likely to do with it, and of course the car handled it with aplomb; smooth, tractable and nimble, though not without body-roll when pitched into a roundabout without scrubbing off enough momentum beforehand.

It’s all shaping up to be quite a refined package, and one that will really appeal to those urbanites who really don’t want to appear too urban. Those folk who carry a roof-box at all times because it could be carrying their all-important lifestylse paraphernalia that defines them. Now, because this is a typically middle-class thing to do, the Panda really ought to be somewhat more than lower-class the way it presents itself. And the fact that it manages this superbly is perhaps the greatest success story in the current Pandas book.

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Firstly, the interior feels much better screwed together than you might expect. There’s no feeling of disposabiliy and nothing that denotes the Panda as being the starter Fiat that it once was. Sadly, there is no more exposed painted metalwork like in the olden days. Apparently Languedoc-holidaying suburbanites are that demanding now that all evidence of a cars construction has to be concealed at all costs. So a vital source of character has gone missing forever, but there have been some notable steps forward as well.

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Everywhere you look there are natty little styling details that could be nauseating but actually end up being gratifying. The instrument binnacle has a heavily retro-influenced feel to it; though inspired by what I really don’t know. Nothing particularly Italian, I should think. Everything you look at, in fact, has evidently had a lot of time spent on its design. Take the speaker grilles, for example. Plastic mesh would have been fine, but instead Fiat have gone with a pattern of circular holes arranged in concentric rings, in the fashion of a 1960s transistor radio. Ordinarily I’m not keen on retro; it always ends up as a laughable pastiche. But here, because the Panda isn’t directly referencing any particular car that has gone before it, It is enabled to create its own image. And that image, I would say, is far from the cheap and cheerful metal box that went before it.

The Fiat Panda 4×4 is one of those few cars out there which has managed to carve itself a market niche in which it sits alone. It has no price-point rivals; there may be small, cheap, 4×4 cars but none of those seem to exactly match the Pandas dimensions, personality nor  outlook on life. As a result of this it becomes classless; equally at home as an only car for a price-conscious rural family, or as an additional jack-of-all-trades car to park between the Porsche and the Jaaaag.

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Would I buy a Panda? Yes, most certainly, if I was looking for a car in this sector and wanted the reassurance of four wheel drive.  Everything about this Panda 4×4 does exactly what it intended to do, and reports that I have received confirm that it heartily deserves that proud “4×4” logo that’s embossed into its flanks. The level of success that the 4×4 is currently enjoying would also tend to suggest that Fiat have got their marketing sums right, and this is a car people want. Even if, name apart, it’s completely divorced from that bare-metal lined icon of minimalism that went before.

With just the boutique-style 500 and the Panda at the foot of Fiats range, maybe need a new base model?

Bring on the Panda Cub.

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About RoadworkUK

RoadworkUK is the online persona of Gianni Hirsch, a tall, awkward gentleman with a home office full of gently decomposing paper and a garage full of worthless scrap metal. He lives in the village of Moistly, which is a safe distance from London and is surrounded by enough water and scenery to be interesting. In another life, he has designed, sold, worked on and written about cars in exchange for small quantities of money.

19 Comments

  1. You are right that much of the appeal of the Panda 4×4 was (and on the basis of this review, still is) a well pitched balance between utter competence — it will never stand out as being the WRONG choice of car — and its classlessness.
    Its closest rival should be the Suzuki SX4 (paradoxically also sold by Fiat as the Sedici) but, for all of its capabilities its anonymity makes it hard to place in the same market as the Panda. In terms of the buyers who will gravitate towards the Panda, the small Skodas (Fabia & Roomster) or even the Dacia Duster seem to be the most likely rivals.

  2. The interior is an interesting looking place to sit out a traffic jam but how long is the roof? My suburban lifestyle requires the ability to carry a tandem bicycle, although my US address means the only Fiat in this space is a 500L and I'm more likely to end up with a Subaru. For that matter, if I did life in the UK or Europe I'd probably end up with a Multipla or a Doblo since I need the space.
    I do remember the OG Panda and I thought the rear seat that could convert to a baby hammock was a really cool feature.

  3. If this was sold in Canada, it's entirely possible one would be parked in my driveway. Alas, it is not, so it is not.

    1. I think if it was sold here, it would find itself in a very respectable number of driveways in general.

      1. It looks like it shares some of the most complex sheet metal work (front & rear doors, possibly bonnet/hood) and much of the design work that goes into these things — hinges, impact bars, window tracks, lock mechanisms, even parts of the door cards. Expect the boot/trunk door to be the same. Even more similarities under the skin.
        Linking all this up is different sheet metal In between, suited to the different styling, price point or legislation of the different markets.
        Clever.
        Interesting that you linked it immediately to a Brazilian variant. Last night as I posted on the Panda and compared it to offerings from (VW group's) Skoda and (Renault group's) Dacia I wondered wny Fiat did not have an eastern-European sister company with which it could share platforms and spread costs for its smaller western-European models. I had forgotten about their strong presence already in the South American markets.

  4. Was in Spain last week and rented one. It was a 1.2 lounge version with black/beige interior. I was really impressed by the attention to detail when it comes to interior styling. However the steering was a bit vague and the suspension is kinda soft so in small roads I wasn't feeling confident. My 85 Renault 5 is much more pleasant to drive in compairson. At the end it does a good job for the money IMHO

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