Launched in June of 1983, the Panda 4×4 was aimed at families that lived up in Europe’s mountainous regions but still needed affordable transportation. Although that initially sounded like a niche, the size of the market exceeded even Fiat’s expectations.
Fiat had acquired a significant amount of experience in the field of building four-wheel drive vehicles thanks to the Campagnola, a large, Land Rover-like body-on-frame off-roader that went through two generations from 1951 to 1987. The Campagnola was a highly-capable vehicle but it was ill-suited for daily use as a family vehicle due to its size.
Since Fiat expected the Panda 4×4 to be a low-volume model, it outsourced the development and the production of its four-wheel drive system to Austria-based Steyr-Puch. The firm was told it couldn’t make any major modifications to the car’s basic structure so it was forced to retain the transversally-mounted engine – a transverse engine that sends power to all four wheels is common today, but it was a rarity in the early 1980s.
The 4×4 was equipped with a purpose-designed five-speed manual transmission that featured an ultra-low first gear used primarily for off-roading. Second gear had the same ratio as first gear in a regular Panda, third was the same as second and so forth. A power take-off unit integrated into the transmission sent power directly to the rear axle. Fiat warned owners not to drive with four-wheel drive engaged on dry pavement because the Panda 4×4 didn’t have a center differential,
The parts were assembled in Austria and shipped to Fiat’s now-defunct Termini Imerese plant on the island of Sicily where they were fitted to reinforced Panda bodies.
To cope with the weight added by the four-wheel drive system, Fiat ditched the Panda 45’s 850-derived 45-horsepower four-cylinder engine and fitted the 4×4 with a more powerful 965cc unit sourced from the Autobianchi A112. The mill made 48 horsepower and 50 lb-ft. of torque, enough to send the Panda 4×4 from zero to 62 mph (in 100 km/h ) in 18.2 seconds, faster than any other member of the Panda lineup during the early 1980s. Top speed was reached at 133 km/h (82 mph).
Visually, the 4×4 stood out from the regular Panda thanks to a raised ground clearance, beefier tires and model-specific emblems all around. The 4×4 was well-equipped and came standard with tinted windows, a rear windshield wiper, a dimming rear-view mirror and two exterior mirrors in most markets.
In 1986, the Panda 4×4 gained a 999cc four-cylinder engine that made 50 horsepower and 57 lb-ft. of torque. It also retained the heavily-criticized rear leaf springs even after the city-dwelling Panda had adopted a more modern suspension setup.
The 999cc was fitted with a catalytic converter and fuel injection in 1992 in order to comply with European Union regulations. As a result, the power output dropped to 45 horsepower and 54 lb-ft. of torque.
The 4×4’s final mechanical update came in 1995, when Fiat equipped the car with a 1.1-liter fuel-injected straight-four that churned out 54 horsepower and 63 lb-ft. of torque. From that point on, the Panda 4×4 stayed roughly the same inside and out until the end of its life.
Throughout its long production run, the Panda 4×4 came in several trim levels including Country Club, Trekking and Climbing, and numerous special editions such as the 4×4 Sisley, the 4×4 Piste Noire and the 4×4 Val d’Isère. In select markets, commercial buyers could opt a two-seater van equipped with plastic cladding over the rear windows.
The Panda 4×4 was phased out in 2004, a year after the regular Panda. It was replaced by a four-wheel drive variant of the second-generation Panda that is generally regarded as less rugged than its predecessor.
All photos were kindly provided by Fiat’s archives department.