When handed the keys to a brand-new car, most owners become obsessed with keeping it clean. They think nothing of spending every weekend with either a bucket and sponge in hand or visiting their local car wash ensuring their new pride and joy remains in pristine condition. And woe betide anyone who drops the tiniest spec of dirt on the newly vacuumed carpets or leaves an innocent sweet wrapper in one of the door bins. 

• Best small 4x4s

Nothing wrong with that I hear you mutter, but when I finally got my hands on our fleet’s new Fiat Panda Cross, the first thing I wanted to do was to get it as dirty as possible. And it didn’t take me long to find a muddy puddle or two to put the chunky little 4x4 to the test.

The cheeky Panda is as much of a hoot to drive on the road as off it. Its lively two-cylinder 875cc TwinAir engine thrums along tunefully and it keeps pace with other road users surprisingly well. Together, we’ve already embarked on several fairly high-mileage journeys, which have included a mixture of motorways and A and B-roads – all of which the Panda has tackled with relish.   

Plus, we’ve definitely had fun on the more challenging muddy stuff. With just a turn of the terrain control switch, the Fiat becomes a very capable off-roader – albeit a small one.

• Best 4x4s on the market

Not only does it feature a locking rear differential for extra traction in the really slippery stuff, it also has the same sort of electronically regulated hill descent control found on much larger (and much more expensive) SUVs.

Plus, I love the chunky, bright-red towing eyes that poke out from the front bumper. Not only do they look great, they’ll come in handy in the unlikely event that the car needs to be pulled out of the mud.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for our Panda. Not long after it joined the Auto Express fleet, it was broken into while parked in a central London car park. The perpetrator – who has now been caught thanks to some hi-tech forensic detection – smashed the driver’s window and stole the Blue&Me TomTom sat-nav. Very annoying!

National Windscreens replaced the window at a cost of £95 and Fiat kindly fitted a new TomTom and cradle for me, restoring my Bluetooth and navigation facility. It’s an intuitive set-up that features decent graphics – helping to make light work of unfamiliar locations. However, I now make sure I detach the unit and slip it into my bag every time I leave the car.

Another neat touch that I’ve been really grateful for during the recent cold weather is the £250 optional Winter Pack. This incorporates a heated windscreen – meaning no more freezing hands scraping the ice away – plus, my favourite, heated front seats, which warm up quickly and help keep me toasty even on the chilliest of days.

So far, then, I’m loving the Panda Cross, and I’m certainly in no hurry to clean it. In fact, when those around me are spending their Sunday afternoons with a bucket, sponge and chamois, I’ll be heading off the beaten track in search of more muddy adventures.

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