Good: grippy, agile, useful, cool styling tweaks
Not so good: noisy, slow, thirsty, expensive
I hopped, more or less directly, from the massive, hulking Land Rover Defender (tin shed construction, turning circle of a major planet) into the dinky little Fiat Panda Cross. The contrast could hardly have been more stark - one the noisy, massive direct descendant of a 1948 original, the other a tiny city car with rural ambitions. You could almost sense the Panda Cross straining at a metaphorical leash, growling at the Land Rover parked opposite, trying to goad the bigger, more placid animal into a fight to see who was really the best.
The funny thing is, I'm actually not sure quite who would come out on top. Obviously, it would depend on the contest in which you would pit them against one another. If it were the ability to carry armchairs and rolls of carpet, then the Land Rover would metaphorically (possibly literally) crush the little Fiat. If it were getting in and out of a multi-storey car park, then the Fiat would be at the finish line, changed back into its normal clothes and planning dinner while the Land Rover would still be inching through the first obstacle, sweating profusely.
Stick them both in a muddy field though, and I'm really not sure which one would win. The Land Rover, with its massive wheels and lofty ground clearance, should of course take the spoils. But the little Fiat 4x4 (and it really is an actual four-wheel drive) is far, far more capable in the rough stuff than you would possibly give it credit for. There is a damned good reason that these little all-drive Pandas (and the lineage stretches right back to the early eighties) sell so well in areas such as the Alps and the Dolomites. And Donegal, for that matter (where the local Fiat dealer apparently already has a name down against this particular test car...). They don't get stuck when the weather and terrain turn against you.
While a big Defender would try to plough through obstacles, relying on the traction of its knobbly tyres and the torque from its vast diesel engine, the Panda Cross would leap, goat-like, from the top of one crag to the peak of the next lump. It literally bounces across the ground, its little wheels scrabbling in quadratic unison, finding what grip and traction there is to be found.
In fairness, Fiat has had a go at making it a bit more sophisticated. It has fitted the Cross with a Terrain Control switch that allows you to toggle it between Auto mode (for on-road use, where 98 per cent of the engine's grunt goes to the front wheels unless it detects slip at the rear) or Off-Road, where it's locked into a 50:50 split at speeds of up to 50km/h. There's also a Hill Descent mode for controlling the car on slippy slopes.
And it all works really rather well. The Panda Cross just grips and goes and doesn't stop unless you do, or unless you get a bit over-confident and drive into a ditch.
Where it performs rather less well is on the road, where the limitations of the Panda become apparent. As a city car, it's lovely - swooping in and out of tight gaps with barely a bother and causing no small number of pavement patrons to stop and stare at its bright yellow paintwork and chunky plastic bash panels. In tight situations, the Panda is your friend.
On larger roads, and on longer journeys, it's not. There, the overly-upright driving position starts to grate, as does the lack of a sixth gear, which leaves the little diesel droning away in a manner not unlike that of the aforementioned Defender, and making a mockery of the official fuel consumption figures.
Then again, that's not what this car is about. If you can stomach the asking price then the Panda Cross would be the ideal second car for someone who lives in one of the remoter, more rural ends of the country. It would sit, mostly unused, for much of the year, but when those critical few dark, wet and icy months rolled around again, out it would come, its little chin jutting forward, ready for action. It would keep you mobile when others wouldn't, at a price almost no other genuine 4x4 can match.
Ah, almost. Therein lies a final rub for the tiny Panda Cross. For all its 4x4 cleverness and up-and-at-them personality, (it even has bright-red towing eyes built into the front bumper - how cute!) the price tag stumbles over one final hurdle. A four-wheel drive Dacia Duster is bigger, comfier, more refined, more useful and €2k cheaper. That's an obstacle that even the doughty Panda Cross can't quite jump.