ON AND OFF THE ROAD
I’m sitting in a slightly decrepit Fiat Panda, about to do something that logic dictates no car of this size, power and cuteness should do. The location is Monsal Dale in Derbyshire, during a green-laning weekend with members of the Fiat Motor Club and Fiat Forum. There’s a good reason why this area of Britain is called the Peak District, and I’m about to find out why from inside the splendor that is the beige-clad cabin of a 1986 4x4 MkI.
What lies ahead is a very steep, very rocky old miner’s trail. And it looks utterly terrifying. This is far from a green lane. It’s a grey, rubble-strewn battlezone that would seriously challenge the most tricked-out Defender or foolhardy pit pony. And I’m about to assault it in something 30 years old, with an engine of under one litre and just 45bhp, that looks like it should be buzzing around Milan or Rome. It’s seems about as mad as trying to explain the rules of BBC Radio 4’s Mornington Cresent game to an American presidential candidate.
Except, of course, it isn’t. The Panda’s lack of power and its chic and cheerful looks disguise an off-roader that, thanks to Steyr-Puch expertise, is incredibly competent when confronted with the rough stuff. Almost bewilderingly so. On-road, it’s as versatile as any other small Fiat (albeit one with a slightly raised ride height), thanks to the selectable two- or four-wheel drive. But when you’re ready for the tough and tumble, you pull a lever by the main gearstick, and the rear wheels come into play.
Under normal circumstances, you don’t use first gear because of how low it is; on the road, second is the best choice from rest. Here though, such grunt is needed. The Panda shoots forward so quickly, axles a-whining, that you have to slow down before you leave the relative safety of the unsurfaced track and encounter the first rocks. At once, the Panda’s somewhat agricultural suspension causes it to buck upwards; it’s bouncy enough on the roads, thanks to having leaf springs at the rear, but on a rubble-strewn path, it’s like trying to keep control of a spirited mule. However, also like a mule, the Panda is stubborn and resolute, whatever the obstacles. The secret to making progress is not to advance out of first gear and to keep the power on, no matter what. Other off-roaders rely on brute strength to get themselves out of trouble. You can’t in a Panda. However, what you can do is exploit its featherweight mass and diminutive proportions instead. So long as you’re brave enough to keep your right foot down, the Panda 4x4 seems able to just skip over obstacles that would strand bigger stuff. From behind the shaking steering wheel, it is seriously impressive how capable this little Fiat is. And seriously incomprehensible the rest of the car isn’t shaking itself to bits in the process.
The noises from underneath – scraping, grinding and clanging – are concerning, but this MkI at least has a sump guard. Even though, it’s a reminder that the Panda’s main shortcoming is its ground clearance. Nevertheless, the tenaciousness of this survivalist city car means that it’s able to overcome all the odds, even with a quite inexperienced driver in charge. It is amazingly able.
At the top of the miner’s road, the rocks disappear, but the muddy potholes start instead. They may be much less of a challenge but taking a Panda paddling is almost as much fun as taking one rock-climbing. The Panda simply splashes through, at speed, and safely gets home. What a small car star.