PROJECT CARS: Welcome Project Panda 4×4

f_9328“I believe the word you are looking for is, AAAHH!” said the super-villain penguin in Batman Returns, and so did I the first time I laid eyes on the new Road Magazine Project car – a 2014 FIAT Panda 4X4 Antarctica, festooned in not one, but two laid-back penguin decals. That and “I’m buying that!”

I mean, who in their right mind could resist the cheeky, fun charms of the diminutive, quirky, go-anywhere Panda 4×4 in standard spec, let alone FIAT Panda 4X4 Antarctica range-topping spec – built to mark an epic 30 years and 500,000 sales of its iconic all-wheel drive city car/choice of the Italian hill farmer (with its 30-degree incline off-road genuine capability).

Originally priced from £14,895 OTR (but with our diesel version at £15,995) and now sold to us – with a very reasonable part-exchange rate on the VW Project UP! Black, and including a service, extended warranty and slick, friendly and expert customer service via a nice lad called Oliver Pilsbury-Grant at the main dealers, Desira in Diss, Norfolk – for around the £9K mark, with just 20,000 miles clocked-up, we fell in love on first sight & bagged a secondhand bargain modern motoring icon.

Carving a niche pretty much all on its own, the popular FIAT Panda 4×4 still runs waiting lists new and was just what we’d been looking for – a compact, stylish, well designed family car with 4×4 all-weather ability and the extra visibility gifted by a genuinely raised ride height.

We had considered the equally cool Suzuki Jimy, but (A) could not find a secondhand one near us for love, nor money and (B) decided it was a tad too bouncy, small and dated for us. Plus, it doesn’t have penguins, which is a big, immovable plus for the Road Magazine child testing department – a highly discerning and delightful threenager who it’s my main aim in life to please!

The FIAT Panda 4X4 Antarctica was launched in 2014 saying “it features a unique look… designed to stand out from the crowd” – which is certainly not PR speak.

Orange and white and black, like the bird it represents, it clearly does… coming loaded with its jushi penguin decals on either side, orange mirrors and detailing, cool diamond-finish 15-inch alloy wheels, special badges (we love the 30-degree 4×4 one) and coming in crisp Antarctica white with contrasting gloss black roof. It’s a high impact and high spec package.

Inside, the FIAT Panda 4X4 Antarctica also features grey and orange upholstery with numerous additional standard features – like the ace dark-tinted rear privacy glass, a height adjustable driver’s seat and three-passenger rear seat with 60:40 split/folding backrests and, set of all, a whole heap of fantastic squarcircles, or square circles, like the gauges, switchgear, badges etc. Ace!

And, as with all examples of the FIAT Panda 4X4 sold in the UK, the Antarctica edition also features air conditioning, ESC stability control, an electronic locking differential (ELD), specially tuned suspension, mud-and-snow Continental tyres and the extra rugged bodywork protection all as standard.

There was a choice of engines for the FIAT Panda 4X4 Antarctica special on its release – either the award-winning 85hp & 107lbft 0.9 TwinAir petrol engine with its six-speed cog-swapper (which we find a tad tiring on a long run & not-so-economical in the “real world”) or the more grunty and better suited to the trick torque on-demand 4×4 system, 75hp & 148lbft 1.3-litre MultiJet II turbo diesel engine, with five-speed gearbox, which is what we found and went for at Desira FIAT.

Capable of knocking out 75mpg in hatchback 2WD form and over 60mpg all-day long in the way-cooler 4×4 spec and with a ton of usable low down torque, the rattly oil-burner propels the Panda perfectly, even with a bit of a boosty soundtrack.

Like the penguin, it’s definitely not fast on dry land with a quoted 14.5s 0-62mph and 98mph top end, but it feels quicker than its stats and is quick in the set, like the Antarctic bird. And anyway, who buys a Panda for pace?

What it does do is kick-ass off-road – WAY more than you’d thing possible – drive with manners and comfort on the road and nips in and out of traffic gaps and parking spaces with aplomb. And incredibly affordably in the process… barely using any fuel from its £40 fill-up and 400-mile range frugal tank and with 20,000 mile service intervals. Even the £110 road tax fund for the diesel is more than acceptable.

As the lovely FIAT PR team said: “The FIAT Panda 4X4 Antarctica offers a unique combination of exceptionally low running costs and genuine off-road capability which is unmatched by any competitor vehicle.”
Could not have put it better myself!

Only 300 examples of the FIAT Panda 4X4 Antarctica were be built for the UK market – making the sight of these pretty darn rare. So rare in fact, FIAT dealerships even sold the Antartica “kit” of stickers, rims etc. for those who missed out on the hot cake that was the FIAT Panda 4X4 Antarctica, following its launch. Mad eh?

Even without the penguins, the standard FIAT Panda 4X4 has a wealth of motoring accolades to its name – ‘2014 Mini 4X4’ by off-road enthusiast publication, 4X4 Magazine and Top Gear magazine’s SUV of the Year in 2012, to name two. Add in the penguins, and you’re looking at a motoring legend, right?!

At the time of its launch, Elena Bernardelli, Marketing Director of FIAT Group Automobiles UK, commented: “Not only has the FIAT Panda 4X4 been a huge success all over Europe for the past 30 years, it’s in huge demand in the UK too. British buyers really appreciate its nimbleness and efficiency, combined with its immense all-weather capability, all wrapped up in a distinctive and unmistakably Italian package. The new Panda 4X4 Antarctica – with its extra equipment, unique styling features and strictly limited numbers – should prove even more appealing so potential buyers will need to be quick to snap one up this winter!”

And the same was true two Winter’s later. They’re hard to find, because they’re highly sought after. For good reasons.

We couldn’t be more chuffed with our new project car: It’s really good fun – to look at and to drive – and should prove to be an affordable, reliable and funky thing to enjoy for many years to come. There’s tons of space for the family and all its clobber (225-870 litres to be precise), it’s really stylish inside and out, should prove to be immense in the slippery (hopefully blizzard and heavy snowy) conditions and best of all, brings a massive grin to your chevy chase when you look at it, let alone drive it.

And our new project Panda 4×4 creates some unexpected reactions too: I was parked up recently, windows down, when a beaten up builder’s van pulled up full of British construction muscle. I half expected a mouthful of penguin-based abuse and was ready with the “You’re just jealous, because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!” penguin batman film line, just in case. But, instead the top bit of British beef said “seriously cool Panda 4×4 mate! Special edition? What’s the crack with the penguins? Love it…” I was gobsmacked, and so the FIST Panda 4×4 love-in conversation rolled on. Now, how many modern cars get that sort of response from a stranger?

The Panda 4×4 is special.

And all of this is not even mentioning the Road Magazine child testing department’s response, who goes nuts for her “penguin car, penguin car, penguin car!” on sight.

Welcome to the fleet Panda 4×4. You’re a hit in week one! And you make a fine mini-match mate for the somewhat faster, but far, far thirstier Project Beast.

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