How the Fiat Panda 4×4 Became the Unlikely Winter Hero of the Italian Glitterati

When it snows in Europe, the "baby Land Rover" comes out to play

January 26, 2021 9:20 am
Panda Police Vehicle in the Snow
John Magill

Automotive cults often trace their roots back to the least likely of origins. When Fiat decided to offer a small, boxy hatchback to budget-conscious buyers just over 40 years ago, there was no way to know it was kickstarting a legend that would become an obsession for legions of classic car fans.

The Fiat Panda — that bastion of affordable motoring — has become the subject of much adoration in the years following its modest birth. Owner’s clubs provide exceptional international camaraderie, the internet regularly swoons over well-kept examples of the utilitarian commuter, and millions of the Italdesign-penned subcompacts continue to ply roads both European and otherwise. 

It’s a startling turnaround for a car that was once derided by the automotive press for its beyond basic approach to driving, and one that has been fueled in part by the Rad-era appreciation for previously-overlooked automobiles that cuts across economic strata.

There’s one Panda in particular that’s become a celebrated member of the automotive elite: the 4×4. This pint-size pioneer of all-wheel traction has carved out a niche as a winter ride par excellence with a surprisingly diverse pedigree that sees it popping up in the most unusual places.

Jim Magill

Just the Basics

It didn’t take long for Fiat to establish a Panda beachhead. Buyers flocked to its mechanically simple, unpretentious value proposition, and the vehicle quickly became known for its practical interior room and barebones, easy-to-repair feature set. Despite delivering less than 50 horsepower from its sub-liter engine, it was also legitimately fun to drive due to its lightweight platform, as long as one was willing to tolerate its less-than-smooth suspension setup. 

Three years later, the Panda 4×4 would arrive on the scene, beating almost every small car manufacturer to the four-wheel drive game, and adding a new dimension to the hatchback’s character. Few would look at the diminutive hatchback and think it was capable of conquering anything more challenging than a raised curb, but a more comprehensive examination of the model reveals a four-wheel drive system that punched well above the Panda’s station in life. 

Designed by Steyr-Puch (the same Austrian concern that built the rugged Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen), it features a mechanical selector that locks the rear axle in to assist the front as well as a low-range first gear more commonly associated with larger, heftier trucks. The system was fully intended to handle serious slippery conditions, and while it would chatter and bind on dry pavement (leading many owners to learn the quick reverse-then-forward movement required to snap it back to front-wheel drive) it was and still is a monster through snow, mud and ice.

In its home country, it wasn’t long before the après-ski set began to adopt the Panda 4×4 as the unofficial limousine of Italy’s mountain regions. The pocket Fiat’s unstoppable appeal guaranteed access to the slopes even on the stormiest of winter days, with its reasonable ground clearance and narrow tires slicing through drifts and tackling unplowed roads that kept high-dollar Benzes and BMWs trapped at the bottom of the pass. The Swiss side of the Alps also boasted its own vital Panda 4×4 colony: the car’s popularity in St. Moritz (lead by billionaire Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli in his own hatchback) provided a pedestrian counterweight to the high concentration of conspicuous automotive spend that typically peppered the village’s parking spots.

“In Italy especially, they were the go-to car to keep at your alpine chalet. Agnelli was often photographed with his Panda on ski trips, so it wasn’t long before these cars became completely classless, like the Mini was in Britain,” explains Jim Magill. A Fiat expert and Panda super-fan, Magill has probably driven a Fiat Panda further than anyone else on the planet, having extensively traveled Europe and North America in vehicles from his collection.

An Enduring Four-Seasons Legacy

The same characteristics that made the original Panda 4×4 a phenomenon keep it top of mind for enthusiasts today. In addition to longtime owners who’ve been flogging their Fiats on farms and in the countryside since day one, the Panda now enjoys an entirely fresh set of fans who proudly drive the older model alongside the (still popular) modern iteration of the vehicle.

While some classics are kept parked away from the harshest winter weather, the Panda crowd is more apt than most to celebrate its 4×4 capabilities in the appropriate climate. Witness events like Classic Driver’s “Panda 4×4 Meeting’ in St. Moritz,” which gathered a slew of owners together to celebrate the four-wheel drive hatch in its natural environment. Then there’s the Panda’s regular turn as a social media star: a recent post featuring a drag race between the 4×4 and a 1,000 horsepower Ferrari SF90 Stradale crested 13,000 likes on Instagram in a little over a week’s time.

The car’s ability to cut across socioeconomic lines also continues unabated. After an early January snowstorm surprised Spain, the Atlético Madrid soccer team sent out a fleet of modern four-wheel drive SUVs to pick up its players and bring them into town. All, that is, but multi-millionaire forward Yannick Carrasco, who simply borrowed a neighbor’s Panda 4×4, picked up two of his teammates, and drove the trio to training himself. 

“Giugiaro design, interchangeable parts, an interior that can be turned into a bed or taken out and used as deck chairs, a dash that can swallow a laptop, and a rubber floor instead of carpets. With the Panda 4×4, you’ve got a baby Land Rover,” says Magill. “It’s a passion that has really spread across Europe. There’s even a Panda 4×4 club in Poland, where the cars were never sold. The owners are having to go to Germany and Italy to get theirs second-hand.”

From automotive loss-leader to the jewel of Italy’s glitterati, the Fiat Panda 4×4 has come into its own as one of the classic car world’s least likely winter warriors. Today, every online video of a modern Panda deftly side-stepping a stranded luxury SUV on a snowy mountain road represents a passing of the torch from one generation of unstoppable blizzard beater to another.

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