Overall rating: 4/5
With the sort of looks that are so far beyond ugly they're just brilliant, and surprisingly excellent off-road ability mixed in, the Fiat Panda Cross, the ultimate derivation of a rough 'n' tumble Panda, is a deeply likeable machine - if you're prepared to accept the fact it really doesn't like being driven fast.
In the metal 4/5
Wow. This is like the original Fiat Multipla all over again. There's absolutely no doubt we've seen few cars that have more astonishing front ends than this. Yet... we love it. Because it's so unapologetic and yet cheerful, you actually end up coming to like the way it looks after some time in its company. You can choose from six colours, but none of them are going to tone down the acres of black plastic or the steel underbody protection fore and aft; least of all the yellow hue of the test cars. It's certainly rugged enough and it doesn't look ridiculous when traversing a pretty challenging off-road course later in the day.
The interior is largely the same as in other Pandas, so 'squircles' everywhere and plenty of space. The obvious additions are the copper finish to the majority of the dashboard and bigger side bolsters on the front seats for more lateral support.
Driving it 4/5
This is a prime example of cause and effect. Fiat's small cars have always been entertaining to drive, perky little things that scoot from corner to corner with vim and vigour. If you're expecting the Panda Cross to be along those lines, think again. It has an absolutely farcical amount of both body roll and understeer, the front tyres washing wide with little provocation as you tip into the bends like you're on some sort of crazy, road-going Pendolino. The all-season tyres with oversized 65-profile sidewalls are contributors to the lack of front-end grip, but steering that's vague doesn't help matters one iota. You'll have a laugh while driving one hard, but for all the wrong reasons.
However, the pay-off for this lack of dynamic credibility is twofold. Firstly, cease driving it quickly (believe us, unless you have a very strong constitution, you'll soon want to throttle back) and it rides beautifully. It'll soak up lumps and bumps on its long-travel, soft suspension, without feeling like it is wallowing or has lost control of its body. Fiat has bolstered the sound-deadening in the bulkhead, on the back of the dashboard and inside the wings and the loudest thing on the Cross when cruising is the engine. If we're being honest, the diesel could do with a sixth ratio (as fitted to the petrol TwinAir model), because it's a bit busy at 120km/h in fifth. Nevertheless, tyre roar and wind noise are kept from intruding on the passenger compartment and so the car is comfortable at motorway speeds.
The other benefit is marvellous off-road ability. At Fiat's Balocco proving ground, a testing course involving 57 per cent inclines, 25cm deep water, proper transverse slopes and huge, concrete bump strips to test chassis rigidity and torsional rigidity didn't faze a TwinAir model that was three-up. In fact, it felt like the Panda could've taken on even more tricky terrain, gamely plugging on no matter what you could throw at it.
Some of its vital stats in the off-road stakes are: 161mm of ground clearance (157mm for the diesel, with both these figures 9mm up on the corresponding 4x4 Pandas); approach and departure angles of 24- and 31 degrees respectively, with a 21-degree break-over figure; the ability to climb 70 per cent hills and take on 55 per cent lateral slopes; standard-fit mud and snow 185/65 R15 tyres; and formidable wading depths of 739mm for the diesel and 711mm for the petrol. For something that - underneath all the body-cladding glitz - is a two-cylinder city car, this is some serious engineering.
What you get for your money 4/5
The Panda can seat four adults in a fair level of comfort, while it has a modest but well-shaped boot. As standard, the Cross is fitted with all the accoutrements of its off-road ethos, as well as 'Blue&Me' Bluetooth connectivity, a CD player with MP3 functionality, heated electric mirrors, climate control, a leather steering wheel and gear knob, electric windows all round and 15-inch alloys. As demand is low for the regular Panda 4x4 in Ireland Fiat says the price is 'on application'. We believe that'll be about €23,000 - or €3,000 more than the Panda 4x4.
The Panda Cross uses an electronic locking differential (ELD) and a three-stage drive mode switch to provide its all-terrain propulsion. In 'Auto', up to 98 per cent of drive is sent to the front wheels and it only shoves more torque out back if it starts to sense wheel-slip. In 'Off-road' mode, and at up to speeds of 50km/h, the ELD is pressed into action to pre-load torque to the rear wheels, while individual wheel braking prevents any torque being wasted, providing the car with forward momentum. Finally, the Panda Cross also has Hill Descent Control, a function we've all become familiar with since it appeared on the Land Rover Freelander in 1997; on the Cross, it works as well at controlling your speed on steep descents as it has anywhere else we've tried it.
The Panda Cross's looks are going to divide opinion like nothing else, but this is yet another endearing car from a company that has an enviable record in this department. The Cross is definitely the most capable off-roader of any smallish crossover, although it could be argued this sort of ability is unnecessary given the target buyers and the Trekking/4x4 do mud-plugging almost as well. However, you can't ignore the brilliance that's gone into turning a city car into some sort of quasi-adventure vehicle.