For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
In 2003, the then-new Fiat Panda won the European Car of the Year award; today it holds a one-star review from What Car? magazine.
Remarkable refinement, a dynamic sweet spot and pound-for-volume practicality have, in 19 years, turned into mechanical harshness, excessive body roll with a tiresome ride, and a most-cramped-in-class interior.
It is a victim of progress, albeit one that remains at the top of Italy’s sales tables.
The original Fiat Panda, introduced in 1980, felt just as long-in-the-tooth by 1995, its final year on the UK market.
An early facelift in 1984 was the last real advance beyond the array of special editions – remember the Fizz, or the Italia 90? – but, thanks to the Panda’s innate simplicity, it became something of a classic in its own time, none more so than the 4x4 Sisley.
The Cross is that car’s spiritual successor.
Back in the ’80s it was white wheels, canoeists on the seats and a compass and inclinometer on the dashboard; today it’s rufty-tufty body cladding, spotlights and recycled interior materials.
Both are innocently pretending to be big, proper off-roaders; now there are even hints of sister company Jeep’s influence in door panels covered in small type-outs of the word ‘Panda’.
Of course, the joke on sceptics was that the Panda 4x4 was supremely capable off-road.
The original had a part-time 4WD system made by Steyr-Puch, suspension raised by 25mm, and underbody impact bars to protect the sump.
They proved so popular in the Alps that they became as ubiquitous there as the standard ones were in the rest of Italy.
Today, the new version is replacing the stock as time weathers away the originals.
The latest 4x4 Cross has a further 16mm of ground clearance and an automatic 4WD system that is lockable up to 31mph.
In the UK, the 4x4 was more usually just a bit of fun, and it’s heartening to find that this, one of the very last before a new Panda comes in 2023, shares the spirit of the original.
It has a get-on-and-do-it character throughout, from its insistence on five big doors despite its diminutive dimensions to the peppy, bounding way it bursts out on to the road.
The 85bhp two-cylinder is well up on the 59bhp of the 1.2-litre ‘four’ it replaced in 2012, let alone the 49bhp of the original’s 999cc FIRE unit, and thrums away encouraged by the turbocharger to gobble up its 2-4000rpm torque band.
It doesn’t have quite the same mechanical zing of Fiats of old, first-gen Panda included, but its punchy performance is paired well with light controls including a six-speed gearbox that’s far more enjoyable to use than the old car’s.
On the motorway it feels a little out of breath, but it’s when you get to rural lanes and the occasional muddy byway that the Cross comes into its own.
Just like the original, this Panda feels casually above judgement in later life. It’s incredibly small yet defiantly ambitious and now, even more than in 1995, that’s a rare thing to see.
Images: Luc Lacey
- Engine turbocharged 875cc two-cylinder; 85bhp @ 5500rpm; 107lb ft @ 1900rpm
- Transmission six-speed manual, 4WD
- 0-62mph 12.7 secs
- Top speed 102mph
- Mpg 40.9
- Price £18,425