The Fiat Panda Cross is a curious car – an even more off-road biased version of an already unlikely off-road hero. The Panda Cross takes a regular Panda 4x4, complete with its plastic cladding and extra ride height, and dials up the utilitarian look, adding a front bumper-cum-skid-plate with no fewer than 15 intakes in the Panda’s trademark ‘squircle’ motif.
Red towhooks and white running lights add to the fussy look, but when you take in the plastic protection around the headlights, and matching armour around the flanks and rear, the Panda Cross does wear its rough-and-tumble suit well. And Fiat says, despite the rise of the all-mouth-and-no-trousers compact crossover, that this no-nonsense makeover isn’t just for show.
The new bumpers give an extra three degrees of approach angle for scaling steeper slopes, and a meagre one degree of extra departure able - the Panda Cross can negotiate a 33-degree downward ramp. Breakover (grounding out) angles of 20 degrees and up to 161mm of ground clearance mean this little Panda can reach areas that would flummox almost every ‘SUV’ crossover out there save for the Jeep Renegade.
Short overhangs and low weight have always played to the Panda’s strengths off-road, but the Cross takes that to a new level with an automatic electric locking differential which gives full-time all-wheel drive when required, a seamless 4x4 mode when slip is detected, plus a hill-descent mode like a Land Rover’s. A ‘Terrain Control’ dial in the squircle-themed cabin controls the drivetrain’s behaviour. Our test route included a challenging quagmire of a quarry-based course that the Panda Cross skipped across with aplomb.
Providing the oomph are is a choice of two engines – the 0.9-litre turbocharged TwinAir petrol we’re driving here, and the 1.3-litre MultiJet diesel which Fiat claims can achieve up to 60.1mpg. Both see increases of 5bhp over the standard Panda 4x4’s engines, not that you’ll notice the extra poke on the road. The diesel’s potential frugality is more plausible than the TwinAir’s usual wild claims of 57.6mpg, which, like the tweaked Fiat 500, now has an Eco mode to drop torque from 145Nm to 100Nm.
On the road, the TwinAir has to be worked typically hard to give its 89bhp – decimating the fuel economy – but it is at least characterful sounding, and easily punchy enough to pull the Panda Cross along. It’s a difficult car to row along smoothly though, no thanks to a notchy six-speed gearshift, narrow power band and typically grabby Panda brakes. The petrol car’s low-range aping ‘crawler’ first gear is no help in that regard, forcing you to nurse the car from first to second gear when scampering away from standstill.
However, the Panda Cross really excels on the worst sorts of British roads – scarred and potholed B-roads and residential areas. Here, its tall driving position and light steering come into their own, making the Cross something of a working class hero at dodging the worst imperfections. In any case, the generous sidewalls of the standard-fit all-season tyres add extra compliance to the Panda’s already comfortable ride, though the pay-off is a noticeable increase in tyre roar.
That comfort-biased approach is of curse the car’s downfall if you drive it like a sports-SUV, offering only comical understeer, ocean-going body roll, and tyre squeal. But the Panda Cross is cheery and handy enough when nipping through town or along rutted country lanes that there’s no need to drive the wheels off it in search of extra layers of character.