YOU can’t really review the Fiat Panda without looking at the model’s history. After all, it’s been in production for 40 years, having first appeared back in 1979. Originally a small, seriously square little Italdesign car aimed directly at the city dweller, the model’s practical simplicity produced a utilitarian car for fashionable urban drivers.

That was until Fiat supremo Giovanni Agnelli tasked Fiat’s R&D chaps with making a one-off Panda 4x4 for his own personal use. The result was a car with almost limitless off-road capabilities, the fact it weighed almost nothing and required little or no off-road knowledge of its driver meant quite a few of Giovanni’s friends asked if he’d make one for them.

So, in 1983 the Panda 4x4 entered the Fiat range and has been part of it ever since, the Fiat’s off-roading abilities now legendary. Remaining more or less the same until a 2003 facelift delivered the more upright styling that has persisted for around 16 years – apart from various cosmetic revisions, engine changes and a hydraulic 4x4 system – the Panda as a whole personifies the phrase, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. And if there’s one thing the Panda 4x4 doesn’t need, it is fixing. Based on the standard 4x4 model, the Cross takes the standard two box Panda format and adds an increased ride height, higher cut arches and chunky side protection, 15” alloy rims and 185/65 all-season, multi-terrain tyres, extra front lighting in a more pronounced moulding, skid plates fore and aft and, of course, the twin, bright red towing eyes. Apart from these entertaining cosmetics, the basic Panda attributes still apply; a short stubby bonnet, four decent sized doors and a full-depth tailgate all sat on long travel, at times entertainingly bouncy, MacPherson struts, coil sprints and twist beam suspension.

Forestry Journal: 185/65R15 all-terrain tyres keep the Panda plugging through the mud.185/65R15 all-terrain tyres keep the Panda plugging through the mud.

But don’t let the almost cartoon-like exterior fool you. The Panda Cross still gives you a 161 mm ride height, a 779 mm wading depth, 340, 210 and 240 departure, brake over and approach angles with a 55% maximum tilt capacity. There’s also the fully automated hydraulic 4x4 system that requires little more from the driver than to select one of the three settings of auto, off-road and the unique hill decent mode. Where most 4x4s require the vehicle to be in a low gear, the Panda will request that you place the gear lever in neutral just before you start your decent. While this defies all known laws and principles of off-roading, believe me when I say it works to an almost implausible degree. All the driver has to do is steer.

The overriding feature of the Panda’s brown, grey and black cabin are what Fiat call their ‘squircles’ or as the word implies, square circles. Making their presence felt on the exterior around the front spotlights, skid plate, rear fog and reversing lights and rear quarter windows, anything and everything inside the car gets the ‘squircles’ treatment. The thick leather steering wheel, orange-on-black instrumentation, heater controls, gear lever knob, door handles, various cup holders, 14 cubbies, speaker housings and even the handbrake. And if that wasn’t enough, when you look closely at the easy clean textured surfaces and door cappings, the texture is the word ‘Panda’.

Forestry Journal: The high revving 2-cylinder TwinAir delivers an enthusiastic 90 hp.The high revving 2-cylinder TwinAir delivers an enthusiastic 90 hp.

Themed cabin trim aside, the cabin is meant for no more than four occupants. The high back fabric seats are comfortable, the controls easy to locate and use, while storage and stowage isn’t too bad given the compact nature of the car. Where Fiat has dropped the ball is in the fact the radio is still only FM/AM and satnav still hasn’t found its way onto the Panda’s option list. Dab and directions are down to the Uconnect system and your mobile device. Not ideal for those of more senior years and something Fiat needs to address. There is, however, Bluetooth.

Space-wise, as a city car, with the rear seats upright, the 260 litres will more than accommodate a decent weekly shop, although fold the rear seats down and the available space more than trebles. Please note though, folding rear seats are an option so you must ask for them to be fitted. If not, the rear 60:40 split bench is fixed. Roof rails are standard and can carry an additional 50 kg but don’t expect to tow anything, the Panda wasn’t designed to pull a trailer.

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Engine-wise, it’s the 90 hp 2-cylinder 0.9-litre turbocharged TwinAir petrol or nothing, the diesel option now consigned to the history books. A shame, given how flexible it was. Returning 36.4 mpg or around 260 miles per 37-litre tank of unleaded, a 0–62 mph time of 12.7 seconds and a 102 mph top speed, the enthusiasm of this diminutive unit and the 6-speed manual transmission is, if nothing else, an experience. Automatically defaulting to eco when the car is restarted, the green mode reduces turbo assist by around 45% but turn it off and the Panda’s performance comes as something of a surprise.

One aspect you have to be wary of in the lower gears is hitting the 6,500 rpm red line, something that happens incredibly quickly. The car very quickly lets you know when you have reached maximum revs since the limiter cuts in but you soon develop a feel for when the next ratio is required – the vibrato to falsetto engine note being an audible indication. The overall sensation is of overt Italian enthusiasm, the little two-cylinder Panda personifying the old-style Fiat reputation of almost unbounded eagerness from a remarkably small engine.

Forestry Journal: The Panda’s signature ‘squircles’ dominate the compact but comfortable interior.The Panda’s signature ‘squircles’ dominate the compact but comfortable interior.

To drive, the Panda Cross 4x4 is as enjoyable as it is easy. The power-assisted three-turns lock-to-lock steering is nicely weighted with a switchable ultra-light ‘city’ setting if needed. The view from the elevated ride height allows for an uninterrupted line of sight in nearly all directions and, while the ride can at times become bouncy, it never becomes unpleasant. If pushed hard into bends the car does understeer. The trick is not to dab the brakes but change down and keep the engine buzzing as you take the corner.

Off-road, the Panda 4x4 exceeds all expectations. It will literally go anywhere, only the size of the obstacle bringing it to a halt. The fact it weighs so little works to its advantage, as does the efficiency of the AWD system. From tracks to muddy fields, the little Fiat takes them all in its diminutive stride.

Price-wise, the Panda 4x4 Cross is listed at a hefty £18,300, the standard Panda 4x4 slightly less at £16,650, but these are Fiat main dealer prices. Take it from me, you can acquire either for considerably less if you seek out the services of a car broker. How do I know this? Because the Fiat Panda 4x4 Cross as tested is my own new car and, through using a broker, I paid nowhere near the suggested retail price.