ON AND OFF THE ROAD

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - Driven -

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.

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