Good: go anywhere (within reason) capabilities, comfortable, good to drive.
Not so good: it's pricey, noisy diesel, could really do with a sixth gear.
Legend has it that the design brief for the Citroen 2CV was along the lines of 'an umbrella on four wheels that can cross a field without breaking an egg, as well as the ability to transport two farmers wearing clogs and carrying 50 kilograms of potatoes or wine.' If true it has to be the best design brief this side of the Bugatti Veyron, but with the current trend of manufacturers looking into their back catalogue for inspiration why has no one, least of all Citroen, tried to emulate it?
Well save for the whole 'umbrella on four wheels' bit one manufacturer has and has done so since the early eighties, when the 2CV was still in production. It is one of the unsung heroes of the motoring world and a car criminally overlooked by the vast majority. That car, ladies and gentleman, is the Fiat Panda 4x4.
Stop your sniggering down the back!
Let's break down that 2CV design brief for a moment: here was a car designed to mobilise the peasantry after the Second World War (the design actually began before it by got held up by... the war). It was a cheap, rugged, utilitarian car to get them out of their horses and carts. But the reason French farmers had been holding on to their horses was because they had specific needs, ones cars at the time could not fulfil. How many cars from the 1940s could drive over a freshly ploughed field with a carton of eggs on the rear bench without breaking any of them? Let's hazard a guess and say none.
Now let's flip that back to the Panda 4x4 - are there any similarly priced or sized cars that can tackle all but one part of the demanding off-road course at Fiat's testing ground in Balocco? The simple answer is 'no' because, while there are other small cars that pack a raised ride height, protective cladding and off-road looks, the Panda is the only one that actually has off-road capabilities by virtue of its unique in class four-wheel drive system. Oh and in case you are wondering about the one aspect of the Balocco test the Panda cannot complete, it is a 70 per cent (i.e. ridiculously steep) incline.
You see, beneath that 50mm raised suspension, metal underbody guards and plastic cladding on the body is an actual, honest to goodness four-wheel drive system, one that the likes of the Volkswagen Cross Polo and Dacia Sandero Stepway can only hope and dream for. Travel to rural Italy and you are likely to see first generation Panda 4x4s (released in 1983) still used on farms and vineyards. This is a small car that takes a look at the road ahead and no matter how torn and broken it is, gets on with it. Considering some of the bohreens that are classed as roads in Ireland it is the perfect car for Irish drivers too.
In everyday use the Panda 4x4 is essentially front-wheel drive. This is good for fuel economy with the Panda said to drink just 4.7 litres/100km, yet emissions are criminally high for such a small car, with the 125g/km output equating to €270 a year road tax. At all times there is some power sent rearwards and should there be the slightest slip up-front, power can be split 50/50. If you are travelling less than 50km/h you can also press the ELD (electronic locking differential) button near the gear stick, which can brake any wheel that's spinning and send torque to the wheels with grip instead. Being small and light, it can pull itself out of most things you are likely to throw at. Don't get me wrong, a Land Rover or Jeep it is not, but for snow covered lanes or roads destroyed with tractor muck the Panda 4x4 is ideal.
Especially when paired with the 1.3-litre diesel engine. Fiat also offers it with the 900cc TwinAir petrol unit, which is a joyous thing, but its lack of torque compared to the diesel means it is an option best left to the standard Panda or 500. The diesel engine is noisy and is only mated to a five-speed manual gearbox (the TwinAir gets a six-speed transmission), but this is somehow rather endearing. Normally if an engine is too vocal we will moan about it, but in the agricultural surroundings of the Panda 4x4 it works. Sure it can be wearying in traffic and a sixth gear would really help on the motorway, but standard stop-start and comfortable seating do somewhat alleviate things.
The driving position is actually fairly upright and quite high, which seems odd at first, but it is easy to get used to and works perfectly with the dashboard mounted gearstick. Space in the back is not what you would call generous but that can be said of nearly every of this size. At 225 litres the boot is smaller than the likes of the Volkswagen up! and certainly the Cross Polo or Stepway. You will struggle to fit your weekly shopping in there, but we do imagine the 2CV's 50 kilogram load did also include the rear seat.
Fiat's interior trim leaves a lot to be desired. Apparently the idea of soft-touch plastics has not yet reached there as the entire innards are covered in the kind of stuff rivals usually try to hide away. It looks hard wearing though and should (in theory at least) stand up to as much abuse as the rest of the car. Plus with tiny little 'squircles' all over it at least the kids have something to keep them occupied.
Now for the bad news. The 2CV sold incredibly well because it was cheap. You may not think that now if you are in the market for a classic version, but in their day you could buy one for what amounted to half a baguette, a carton of Gauloises cigarettes and a bottle of the finest red wine. The Panda 4x4, on the other hand, costs €19,995. When you consider the standard Panda starts at €11,995 that is a huge jump, but the 4x4 is well specified with Bluetooth, a USB connection, multi-function steering wheel, alloy wheels and mud and snow tyres all fitted as standard. The pricing still does somewhat take away from the whole 'car for the peasant' vibe, but there are few other models we can think of for the price that have as much character, 'so-uncool-its-cool' looks and ability as the Panda 4x4. Plus, drivers also get to grin as fake-SUV owners are stranded at the first sign of snow while you carry on regardless - and that has to be worth something.