Motoring review: Fiat Panda 4x4 TwinAir

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A Chelsea Tractor that won't make Greenpeace angry

Price: £13,950
Engine capacity: 875cc 2-cylinder turbo TwinAir
Power output (bhp @ rpm): 83 @ 5,500
Top speed (mph): 103
0-62 mph (seconds): 12.1
Fuel economy (mpg): 57.7
CO2 emissions (g/km): 114

A few months back in the middle of the never-ending winter cold snap, a picture did the rounds. It was of a shiny new Range Rover. The problem for its owner was that the sure-footed and luxurious off-roader wasn't rescuing a stranded motorist or tackling towering snow drifts, it was stuck, nose-first in a ditch at the side of a snow-bound country lane. Expensive for its owner and bad PR for Range Rover, but it proved the point that no matter how expensive your off-roader, size isn't everything when it comes to travelling on snow.

It's a point further proved by the new Fiat Panda 4x4. Early spring isn't normally the best time to test a new off-roader (I should be in a convertible with the sun on my face), but as luck would have it there was still plenty of snow, mud and freezing rain about for my test of this tiny 4x4 from Italy. And on a treacherous five-hour run to Birmingham to visit the new Jaguar F-Type's production line, coming back to London via the icy lanes of Shakespeare Country and the Cotswolds, I fell madly in love with the Fiat Panda 4x4.

Land Rovers and Jeeps are all well and good for the sub-zero dash to feed the sheep on a high fell, but the Fiat Panda 4x4 is the off-roader of the people. At less than £15,000 it's a more democratic car, one that's fun to drive, can go pretty much anywhere without costing the earth, and it won't have a hoard of Greenpeace activists in hybrids putting up roadblocks.

What's more, this third-generation model can be had with Fiat's small but mighty 84bhp TwinAir turbo two-cylinder petrol engine. It offers just the right amount of gutsy pull to be fun to drive, but emits roughly half of the emissions of a Range Rover's engine and, if treated carefully, can offer twice its fuel economy. True, it won't match a Range Rover's off-road system in truly terrible conditions and isn't as luxurious or roomy, but there is plenty to love about this little Fiat.

It's no surprise then that the model it replaces was popular with vets and rural midwives who had to guarantee they'd get where they were aiming for. Likewise it is practically the car of choice for most of Alpine Italy and France.

It's a proper off-roader, with uprated suspension, a steel sheet to protect from off-road lumps and raised air intakes for wading rivers. It also gets something called a torque-on-demand system with two differentials and an additional "electronic locking differential".

Essentially the traction control works to trim wheel spin from each wheel on uneven, slippy or broken ground. That's a clever bit of kit and means the Panda 4x4 will embarrass some serious mud machines off road and enjoys a ride that, compared with most city cars, is incredibly smooth and refined on road. And because it is 47mm higher than the normal Panda and has a light clutch and soft throw on the gear lever, it is a wonderfully easy car to drive around town.

The suits at Fiat tell me the Panda 4x4 is selling well, which is good news for a firm that needs more success stories to sit alongside its excellent 500 city-car range. This may be down to the cold snap (believe it or not 4x4 sales do go up during cold winters) but I'd like to think that it's also because the plucky little Panda has character. Sadly that's something you can't say about many small and affordable cars these days.

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