Fiat-Panda-CrossThere’s an argument in the age of humongous cars and melting ice caps that small is the new big. Why buy a big saloon when a city car will do most of the things you require of it?

Why buy a large, lazy V8 when a small turbocharged engine will be just as zippy without upsetting environmentalists? Why buy a Land Rover Defender when a Fiat Panda 4×4 is arguably just as capable in the rough stuff?

The latter is the reason I’m a bit of a fan of the Panda 4×4. Taking one around the off road course at Millbrook last year, after trying exactly the same course in a Defender 90, I found the Panda just as capable but at the same time, more fun. It has a completely different approach to the Defender – while the heavy old Land Rover will dig down through the mud and find traction, the Panda just skirts over the top mocking its green oval nemesis.

Like the standard Fiat Panda 4×4, the Cross has got a clever ‘torque-on-demand’ 4×4 system which uses an electronic differential that distributes torque between the two axles depending on where the traction is – so, essentially, you’ll be pulled or pushed over obstacles depending on the situation.

So what has Fiat done to make the Panda 4×4 even more capable? Well, it’s made the important bits bigger. And no – I don’t mean the wheelbase has been extended, or its been on the MINI enlargement pills. Instead, Fiat’s given it chunkier tyres, and raised its suspension. It’s also got some extra cladding and the bumpers have been modified to provide a more aggressive look – while improving the crucial approach and departure angles.

But does all this make the Panda 4×4 Cross look a bit silly? Will it be screaming ‘short man syndrome’? And how will it affect its on-road handling?

Well, today I’m going to be finding out, as I’ll be trying it both off road and on at Fiat’s Balocco test track in Italy. I’ll report back.

Fiat Panda Cross – launch location