Fiat Auto SA has introduced two versions of the Panda 4x4 - Trekking and Climbing derivatives. The Fiat Panda was European Car of the Year in 2004.
Both Fiat Panda 4x4 models are powered by a 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine delivering 44 kW at 5 000 r/min and 102 Nm at just 2 500 r/min.
A 1.3-litre turbo-diesel will be made available later, at a premium of around R8 000, if demand warrants it.
The engine drives a permanent four-wheel drive system through a five-speed manual gearbox.
There's a viscous central coupling which automatically selects when four-wheel drive is necessary, otherwise the cars drive throughn the front wheels only
The Trekking model is well appointed with air conditioning, electric windows, headlight adjustment, a heated rear screen with its own windscreen wiper, intermittent wipers, eight-speaker stereo pre-wiring (including speakers), key-operated central locking, and electric DualDrive* power steering with a height-adjustable column as standard equipment.
A foldable rear seat, three cup holders, courtesy lights and a headlight-on warning are also standard.
The Climbing model adds a radio/CD front loader, a cigarette lighter, remote central locking, 50/50 split rear seats (with headrests) and audio controls on the steering wheel to the Trekking?s list of standard features.
Climbing models are immediately distinguishable from the Trekking thanks to colour-coded bumpers and door handles, roof rails and alloy wheels. The Climbing also has a leather-covered gear lever.
Safety levels are high. ABS with EBD is standard across the range, as are driver and front passenger airbags. There is a high-level brake light, three-point seatbelts for all four passengers and side impact protection bars. The Climbing model adds side airbags to the standard menu.
The Fiat Panda 4x4 comes with a three-year/100 000km dealer warranty and roadside assistance for 12 months. The Trekking costs R124 000 and the Climbing R139 000.
On the road
I drove both versions, and they proved impressive in ways I had never expected.
Both vehicles are funky-looking - and small! You'll be touching shoulders with your front seat passenger if you're anything bigger than 80 kg, while the rear seats are definitely reserved for youngsters.
Similarly with boot space - it's miniscule - although the rear seat does fold forward to give more carrying capacity when needed.
However, you'll forget all that the moment you venture onto the open road.
Despite being fitted with chunky off-road-type tyres the little cars grip the road with alacrity, even though they sit high off the ground, giving no less than 165 mm of ground clearance.
I pushed the car hard on the ride and handling circuit at Pretoria's Gerotoek proving ground, and it handled like a little go-kart, with a modicum of understeer that was easily negated by "chucking" the car into the corners.
At that stage, say observers, the Panda cocked a wheel into the air much like the original Mk 1 Golf GTi - testimony to the stiff suspension setup and rigid body.
Then, off-road, we ventured into areas you'd never take your family car - or even a 4x2 bakkie - and the Panda came through with flying colours.
Look, this is no bundu-basher, but you can readily take it into the country without having to worry about clouting the underside. And you can leap kerbs with ease in your quest to park outside the Newscafe!
The interior is well laid-out, with the extra features on the Climbing well worth its additional cost - especially the wider tyres on those neat alloy rims, as well as the built-in sound system.
Performance was inhibited onj the launch by altitude power loss at the Reef, and owners there might well find the car running out of breath if the car is heavily laden.
That, of course, would be easily solved by spending the R8 000 or so that the turbo-diesel version will cost when it gets here. But no-one at Fiat can tell me when that will be.
The cars come in all sorts of funky colours, with lots of trim alternatives.
Fiat SA boss Giorgio Gorelli is reluctant to discuss potential sales, but my bet is between 20 and 30 a month.
However, this could easily become a cult vehicle of note. I see students with well-heeled parents clamouring to get behind the wheel, independent-thinking young women, and quite a few trend-setters of either sex who just want something different.
Either way, if you remember this is no G-Wagen, but a smart and trendy small car that can do more than the average car or bakkie, while delivering decent fuel economy and low running costs, you'll find yourself enjoying every moment...