Fiat Panda

Fiat has transformed its Panda into the ultimate go-anywhere plaything - complete with Fisher-Price-style bodywork

This is one of the most entertaining small cars we've driven this year. While there are more sophisticated offerings available for the money, the Panda Cross has real character. It drives well and is amazingly competent off-road - something that its rivals could never claim. Let's hope Fiat brings it to the UK next year.

The Panda Cross is a further evolution of the current 4x4 model - a machine that has proved a massive hit around Europe and accounts for nearly 20 per cent of all sales in the range.

Aside from the chunky body panels and lurid colours, the biggest difference between the Cross and the standard 4x4 is underneath the car and takes the form of an ingenious differential unit.

A new viscous coupling device sits between the two axles and is supplemented by a clever electronic control system linked to each wheel. This allows the Panda to drive off even if only one wheel has grip. With a conventional 4x4 system, power can be swapped from front to rear axles, but rarely across the car. By applying the brake to a spinning wheel, the Panda system forces drive to the wheel with grip - hauling the Fiat out of trouble. It's smart, and works amazingly well.

As with the standard Panda 4x4, the Cross is a real hoot on the open road. But thanks to its higher ride height (11cm taller than the regular 4x4 model) and chunkier tyres, it's not a car for those seeking precise handling.

It does, however, possess character and charm - qualities in short supply in Fiat's new Sedici. Yes, it rolls through corners and pitches forward when you hit the brakes hard, but things never get out of hand and the driving experience always raises a smile.

The engine and gearbox are also great to use. The additional hardware underneath has done nothing to affect the lovely gearchange and enthusiasm of the excellent 1.3-litre Multijet turbodiesel. With plenty of torque on tap and intelligently chosen ratios, the Panda is at home over any terrain.

Downsides? Well, the biggest one is that this brilliant little package may never come to the UK. Fiat bosses over here are agonising over its future and possible sales potential. If it was up to us, we'd sign the deal today because this is a car that promises to make budget motoring a real joy.

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