The wild winter of 2010 saw the roads of North Yorkshire snowbound from well before Christmas until far into the New Year. This was not good news for drivers of BMWs with wide wheels and tyres, and it became a standing joke that whenever the TV news showed a clip of some unfortunates pushing a slewing car along a snow covered road it was inevitably a BeeEm.
One morning, following a heavy overnight fall, I gingerly set out for my office 35 miles to the north by first driving south to avoid the hills out of my village. My wife followed on her own shorter commute. At the point where I turned north my otherwise wonderful 535d M Sport was defeated by the gentlest of gradients, and with the help of those stuck behind the car was manhandled into an empty office car park.
I continued my journey in Mrs H’s only slightly more mobile 630i, then that evening, when the snow had temporarily eased, returned to collect my car only to be confronted by a locked gate and an unfriendly note stating this to be very private property and that the police had been informed. It turned out the company in question produced highly sensitive radar equipment for such clients as NASA, and they didn’t take kindly to strange vehicles in their car park. Some smooth talking and a box of chocolates were required to secure the return of my ride.
This was the final straw. Much as I disliked the breed, a 4×4 was clearly required to keep mobile during a severe rural winter, but a big muscular off-roader, soft-roader or SUV were not to my taste. However, it had not escaped my notice that Italian ski resorts were always full of Fiat Panda 4x4s, which looked kind of cute. They were also among the smallest and cheapest 4x4s on the market.
After reading favourable reports, I looked for a used example, but few were on offer for perhaps obvious reasons, given the weather. So I ordered a new red one from the local main dealer, only to learn shortly afterwards that the base model was no longer being imported. However, the upmarket, better equipped and more funky Panda Cross was still being sold, but in short supply.
Cruising the internet I rang dealer after dealer only to be told they were out of stock, then discovered Thames Motor Group in Slough. There, a cheery fellow called Abb had four Crosses in a range of colours on his forecourt, pre-registered with a mere ten miles on the clock and at an attractive discount. He would deliver and throw in a set of mats, and thus a few days later a pearlescent Funk White, with yellow and black interior (not as bad as it sounds), 75bhp 1248cc turbo MultiJet diesel Panda Cross arrived on my drive.
Compact, yet endearingly rugged looking in a Tonka Toy kind of way, the little Fiat sported air-conditioning, electric windows, stereo, alloy wheels and roof, side and nose styling mods that alluded to an outdoorsy persona, with a nod towards the 2007 Paris-Dakar Panda factory rally entries for Miki Biasion and Bruno Saby.
For what seemed at the time to be interminable snow- and ice-filled weeks, the little car became virtually our sole transport, cutting through drifts to deliver me to the station and then my wife to her place of work. With narrow wheels and 175/65×15 Continental Winter tyres we passed struggling toffs in Range Rovers uphill, and with just 1090kg to control descents presented no drama either. Elevated ground clearance made short work of deep ruts too.
When snow eventually gave way to more clement weather, the Panda was used less and less, and like a sulky child it rebelled. Water worked its way behind one of the plastic outer door panels, froze and forced it outwards, and when I opened the door next to it the distorted panel was caught and bent.
This was irritating, but the upside was that it introduced me to Knaresborough Fiat dealer Piccadilly Motors. Ringing to enquire as to the price of a new panel, the jolly parts man, after checking the car’s age, told me I shouldn’t be paying, and that the aftersales manager would be in touch to arrange for a new part to be fitted. Five minutes later the necessary arrangements had been made.
This far exceeded the customer service I had ever received from a BMW dealer, and from then onwards the Panda has been maintained by this friendly family-run garage. Perhaps ‘premium’ brand franchises see themselves as destinations with whom it is an honour to do business, and a little Fiat outlet must try harder as in direct competition with a plethora of mainstream manufacturers. Whatever, it was a refreshing change.
The only matters that have required attention can probably be attributed to inactivity on the drive: a set of brake discs and pads, and one or two minor suspension components. All relatively inexpensive. I resolved to use the Panda more, and when time was due to me as a result of long hours worked I would take a day off and we would go on adventures together.
I particularly favoured the old rally routes of my youth, and the Yorkshire Dales and mountains and lakes of Cumbria were firm favourites. Hardknott Pass, in the western Lake District, is a single track mountain road connecting Eskdale with the Duddon Valley, and includes one of England’s steepest gradients at 1 in 3.
Remote, challenging, with unguarded drops and few passing places, it could have been made for a Plucky Panda’s modest dimensions and four-wheel drive, particularly when ice can be encountered on the upper reaches even well into Spring. One can only marvel at how top rally drivers of thirty years ago drove flat out against the clock through the night over this torturous terrain during such classic rallies as The Illuminations and Devils Own.
The Panda is not a fast car, but that doesn’t matter. Getting the most out of what you have is a joy in itself. On start-up there is an old-school diesel rattle, but once warmed up the engine is as sweet as a nut. The viscous coupling four-wheel drive system with electronic differential lock means that under most road conditions only the front wheels do the driving, but should slippage be detected drive is directed to all four wheels. (All-wheel drive can also be manually selected should one choose.)
Accordingly, the car handles like a front-wheel driver, with a tendency towards understeer. A jacked-up stance adds some roll, but body control is good, and the grip of the soft compound winter tyres prodigious, so by using what power is available early through a corner an acceptably neutral stance can be achieved. As ever, the management of weight transfer is the key to carrying speed out of one corner into another in a controllable manner, and remarkably good pace can be maintained.
Inside everything is refreshingly clear and simple. There are no touchscreens, mouse controls or voice activation, just good old-fashioned knobs and buttons. The plastics are better than might be expected, and although perched relatively high on pews that would never be mistaken for Recaros, there is comfort to be had.
The steering wheel rim is more shoe leather than Connolly, and the stereo unsophisticated yet perfectly adequate, but I love this honest simplicity. The gearlever of the five-speed box pops out of the lower dashboard close to hand, which enables quick shifts to keep the little fella on the boil. A 70-80mph cruise is not out of the question, with the claimed 95 mph top speed exceedable with some gradient assistance, allegedly. Even driving like an Italian, never less than 45mpg is returned, and 25 quid is usually sufficient to fill the tank. Oil and water levels never drop.
Of course enthusiastic driving can get a chap into trouble, and a few years ago I was stopped by a deeply unamused patrolman on the A1(M) for winding the Panda up to 83 mph. Hardly the fastest driver on the motorway that morning, I seemed to have been singled out because Pandas aren’t suppose to cruise at such velocities.
Despite the time of day, I was both cautioned and breathalysed by the Laughing Policeman, while his colleague, the Sleeping Policeman, squirmed lower and lower into the passenger seat of the Audi patrol car, hopefully from embarrassment. Fearing prison then deportation, I found the offer of a Speed Awareness Course a pleasant surprise.
Now that the car is seven years old with just 27,000 miles on the clock, I have no desire to trade up to the more porky later Cross based on the Panda Mk3. A small car can engage emotionally with its owner to a degree a larger vehicle cannot, and the little Fiat has become something of a family pet, an antidote to the more powerful machinery with which it shares space at Equipe Herbert.
It’s the car to go shopping in, the car in which to haul rubbish to the tip, and the car to leave at the station. And when the weather turns ugly, and it’s dark and wet, it’s the car to get you to wherever you are going, cocooned within its cosy confines, heater and wipers turned up, behind those powerful iodine lights. As a practical, cheap to run, fun to drive runabout the Panda would be hard to better, and when snow arrives, absolutely impossible.