IF IT looks like a 4x4, costs like a 4x4 and – up to a point – handles a bit like a 4x4, is it a 4x4? Well, no.
The Fiat Panda Trekking looks the part – distinctively chunky, rugged and beefed up with plastic cladding. Our option-laden test car costs more than the entry-level Panda 4x4. And like its Panda 4x4 cousin it boasts good ground clearance and grippy tyres which, combined with an effective traction control system, allows for some limited off-road action.
But the Trekking isn’t a 4x4. This is reflected in its entry-level price of £13,645 as opposed to the £14,295 4x4 or more upmarket Cross at £15,945. Without all the machinery required for all-wheel-drive, the Trekking weighs in 75kg lighter than the 4x4 – which is effectively an adult passenger that you’re not having to lug around with you.
The practicality of the Panda’s simple, boxy shape at the rear is prettified by the curved corners and given a rugged look by a lip of black plastic trim rising up from beneath. The black roof bars exaggerate the slight curve in the roof, which again helps mask any boxiness. At the front, the headlights curve round the bonnet a little, lending the Trekking a keen, ears-pinned-back demeanour.
Inside, our test car is bristling with features and technology, but in a low-tech, plasticky, bedside-digital-alarm-clock kind of way. Rather than making space for a fully integrated satnav and info system, the Blue&Me TomTom is, inexplicably, a detachable tablet which sits in a cradle on the dash, slightly limiting the view out of the windscreen. It’s also a bit too far away, meaning it’s a pain to programme from the driver’s seat. Because it’s detachable, and therefore nickable, the driver feels compelled to remove and hide it when leaving the car overnight. And on a particularly enthusiastic burl along the Linlithgow to Dechmont road last week, I hit a bump and the system detached and flew into the back seat. I’m not a fan of the Blue&Me TomTom.
Things are better everywhere else in the cabin. Although it’s plasticky, the interior feels firm and well-built. It’s colour-coded with the exterior and, being a modern Fiat, squircles are the order of the day. So it’s got style. But there’s also substance here. It might look small, but its spacious inside with a surprising amount of headroom. All-round visibility is great, helped by a wee bonus squircle-shaped window between the rear passenger windows and the rear window. This comes in especially handy when doing reversing manoeuvres – which makes the optional parking sensors that came fitted to our test car at a cost of £250 seem a little extravagant.
Another parking aid comes in the shape of Fiat’s City Steering, which dramatically lightens the steering at low speeds, taking much of the effort out of things such as three-point turns and reverse parking.
Meanwhile, the Traction+ electronic differential system, combined with the snow and mud tyres, have proved to be of real value in the ice and light snow, although we haven’t encountered any serious stuff which would really test its mettle. The tyres and Traction+ feature also help with handling on wet cobblestones, which is of added value to anyone doing any driving in Edinburgh.
Our test car came fitted with almost £2,000-worth of optional extras, but as well as ditching the parking sensors, we could live without the £300 paint job and the £105 leather steering wheel and gear knob. Of more use was the automatic hill-start brake (£250) and four-seat Flex pack, which allows for a 50/50 rear-seat split and a height-adjustable driver’s seat.
Having mainly been driving the car in the city, we’re nowhere near Fiat’s claimed 67.3mpg fuel economy, but our figure of 42.5mpg is one of the best we’ve experienced in town – it’s especially impressive given the way we’ve been flinging it around. Because this car just begs to be hurled around town. It’s great fun. The 1.3 Multijet 16v diesel engine needs a heavy accelerator foot to coax it into action and rouse it from a slight sluggishness, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be nipping in front of people at roundabouts in no time. Again, those superior tyres help here, as the other Pandas can be a little skittish in these situations.
At first glance, the Trekking seems like a strange idea – a 4x4 that isn’t a 4x4, a city car with mud tyres. But somehow, it all comes together in a fun, practical little package. If you can live without some of the expensive optional extras and shave the price down, you’re on to a winner.
VITAL STATS Price £15,365 (as tested)
Engine 4 cyl 1.3l diesel
Transmission 5 speed manual, FWD
Performance Top speed 100mph; 0-62mph 13.2s
Economy 67.3 mpg
CO2 emissions 109g/km