I SUSPECT it’s an age-and-traffic-related thing, but many’s the time I find myself dreaming of leaving the morning commute behind and embarking on a round-the-world road trip. I long to swap the M8 spur for the Silk Road Trail, Hermiston Gait for the Pan-American highway…
A couple of years ago, a mate bought a Honda Cub moped. “I’d happily go round the world on one of those,” I thought to myself as I watched him whizz round Holyrood Park on what amounted to little more than a chainsaw on wheels. The bike was stolen and stripped a short while later, and the dream died. Tears were shed.
A couple of months ago, another mate let me borrow his 1973 VW Camper for a Hebridean holiday. “I’d happily go round the world in one of these,” I thought to myself as my pied-a-terre with an engine in its derriere headed for the ferry. A handful of miles later, I realised the fuel bill would cripple me if the exhaust fumes didn’t suffocate me first, and the dream died. Nasal hairs were singed.
Now, though, I’m daring to dream again, and it’s all thanks to this – the Fiat Panda Multijet 4x4, in beige. Stop laughing at the back. I spent a week pottering about in the putty-coloured Panda and, although I never took it more than 30 miles from home, I just know it ticks all my circumnavigational boxes.
For a start, it can “do” four-wheel drive, which is a must for high jinks in the Hindu Kush. Most of the time, the front wheels do the bulk of the work. If they start to slip, the car quickly channels power towards the back. I didn’t get the chance to put the Panda through its paces in the swamps of Borneo or the sand dunes of the Sahara, but I did get its tyres mucky in a forest car park in West Lothian (looks a bit like Borneo) and it flatly refused to lose its composure when I floored the throttle. In the interests of research, you understand.
Tick two is for fuel. “Multijet” is Fiat-speak for “I’ve got a diesel engine” and this appeals to my inner Phileas Fogg. The Panda will cross several lines of latitude and longtitude before it needs a refill, thanks to a modest 1.3-litre turbodiesel engine that has little trouble recording high-50s mpg. Plus, you can always barter for a jerry can of fuel from a friendly trucker if the orange light is showing and the last service station on the Patagonian Highway is closed for the evening.
The Panda 4x4 earns another Bear Grylls Gold Star for ride height. This little scamp sits 5cm higher off the ground than its front-wheel-drive-only siblings, so it can bound across the Siberian steppe or tackle the sort of deep-rutted tracks I might expect to encounter in the Himalayas, or where the tramlines cross the road just outside The Gyle, without scuffing its underneathy bits.
Then there’s the colour. Driving around town in what appears to be a grumpy hearing aid won’t win me many admirers in this neck of the woods, but what would you rather trek across unfriendly desert territory in? A pocket-size Panda that evades the sniper’s sights by being the same colour as the sand, or an ex-United Nations Land Cruiser that lumbers through the dunes with all the stealth of a stray polar bear?
That’s settled then – the Panda 4x4 is the transglobal transgressor for me. As soon as Fiat chiefs supply me with a fuel card, a back-up team and the number of a Discovery Channel documentary crew, I’ll be off. Until then, I’ll hone my expedition skills on the mean streets of Edinburgh.
First thing I notice is that the Panda’s raised height has done wonders for ride comfort, so potholes hold no fears for me. This doesn’t appear to have come at the expense of handling – there’s a little more lean than a standard Panda in the corners, but you’d have to be trying really hard to make the car fall over.
I’m a little less smitten by the diesel engine’s lack of get up and go in first gear. It lacks zip below 2,000rpm, and it’s also a bit vocal. Just as well the 4x4 comes with a six-speaker radio/CD with USB and Bluetooth connection. Things quieten down a bit once the Panda gets into its stride on the open road, but you’ll never not hear the engine unless you’ve got music playing.
Standard equipment on this poshest of Pandas isn’t bad. The 15-inch alloys are shod with mud and snow tyres which proved themselves during my West Lothian car park capers. Air conditioning will help me keep my cool in the tropics, while heated door mirrors will prove useful in chillier climes. If I want heated seats and a heated front windscreen, though, I’ll need to find another £250.
The Panda seats four in reasonable comfort, five at a squeeze. Headroom is good, although the boot is no better than average for this class, so I’ll have to travel light. The cabin abounds with the Panda’s trademark “squircles”. The dials are rounded-off squares, as are the door handles, stereo controls, steering wheel boss, heater controls, gear lever and handbrake lever. It’s funky and functional, without being too cutesy for a hairy-chested expeditioneer such as yours truly.
Who am I kidding? I love cutesy. Someone else can do the Ray Mears stuff. What time is Strictly on?
CAR Fiat Panda Multijet 4x4
PERFORMANCE Max speed 99mph; 0-60mph 14.5secs
MPG combined 60.1
CO2 EMISSIONS 125g/km