First shown at this year's Durban Motor Show, the Fiat Panda 4x4 has just been launched in South Africa. Although it's no powerhouse, the 1,2-litre full-time four-wheel drive mini MPV provides off-road capability for R124 000.

First shown at this year's Durban Motor Show, the Fiat Panda 4x4 has just been launched in South Africa. Although it's no powerhouse, the 1,2-litre full-time four-wheel drive mini MPV provides off-road capability for R124 000.

The Fiat Panda was named Europe's "Car of the Year 2004" after beating rivals such as the Mazda3, Volkswagen Golf Five, Opel Meriva, BMW 5 Series and the Nissan Micra for the title. The first two Panda models to be launched locally are the baseline 4x4, the Trekking, and the more upmarket model, the Climbing.

"The Panda 4x4 is a totally unique product in South Africa with no direct competitors," Fiat Auto SA managing director Giorgio Gorelli said. "(It is) a car that will be able to satisfy customers with different needs and tastes, including the growing number of drivers who seek adventure and an open-air life."

The Panda's squarish lines and SUV detailing certainly set it apart from rival small cars. One of the most distinctive aspects is the side window line, which tapers softly downwards, until it meets the rear side quarterlights, and suddenly squares off. The rear end is stubby, perhaps to the extent that it impinges on luggage space, but the result is a pleasingly cute little car. The facia is attractive, yet still very MPV-ish. There's a tall hangdown section housing the radio, ventilation controls, electric window buttons etc.

The Climbing is 3,57 m long, 1,6 m wide and 1,63 m high, with a high seating position and a turning circle of 9,6 metres - which can be helpful in congested city driving or on tricky terrains. There is a minimum of 200 litres' luggage room, but by folding the rear seats the capacity can be increased to 855 litres (measured to the roof, Fiat Auto SA claims).

The Pandas' permanent four-wheel viscous drive system includes two differentials that are activated automatically. The Trekking's ground clearance is 160mm, approach angle 26 degrees, departure angle of 42 degrees and breakover angle of 24 degrees (Climbing - 165 mm, 24, 44 and 23 degrees respectively. The steepest gradient that can be tackled exceeds 50 per cent, the Rosslyn-based manufacturer claimed on Wednesday.

Both models ride on an independent MacPherson-strut front suspension with bottom crosswise rocker arms anchored to an auxiliary cross-member and a stabiliser bar connected to the shock absorber. The Panda 4x4's rear suspensions are separate for each of the two wheels, with longitudinally stretched arms blocked to a specific frame with a stabiliser bar.

With only 44 kW (produced at 5 000 r/min) and 102 N.m of torque (at 2 500 r/min) on tap, the five-speed manual Panda 4x4 models are pedestrian. The models accelerate from zero to 100km/h in 20 seconds and reach a top speed of 145km/h.

Fitted with 240mm disc brakes all round, the Panda 4x4s are equipped with ABS with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and MSR system, which "prevents wheel spin when changing down gears". Driver and front passenger airbags, a high-level brake light, 3-point seatbelts for all four passengers and side impact protection bars are standard safety features (Climbing model also has side airbags).

The Trekking model is equipped 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 (incorporates a City mode which, when activated, lightens the steering for ease of parking) with a height-adjustable column. A foldable rear seat, three cup holders, courtesy lights, a headlight-on warning and 14-inch steel rims with 165/70 R14 tyres.

The Climbing model adds a CD front loader, a cigarette lighter, leather-covered gear lever, 50/50 split rear seats (with headrests), remote central locking and audio controls on the steering wheel to the Trekking's list of standard comfort features. Climbing models also have colour-coded bumpers and door handles, roof rails and 14-inch alloy wheels.

Options for the Trekking model include a radio/CD front loader, front fog lamps and metallic paint. A CD changer and amplifier, front fog lamps, metallic paint and a sunroof are optional extras on the Climbing model.

The Trekking costs R124 000 and the Climbing R139 000. Prices include a 36-month/100 000km dealer warranty, three years on paintwork and five years on anti-perforation.

The models are covered by the AA Fleetcare roadside assistance for 12 months and services are required at 20 000km intervals.

Original article from Car