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Cute but capable, the FIAT Panda 4X4 at €14,595 is Ireland's most affordable four-wheel drive.

The big snow hasn't come (famous last words!) and while motorists throughout the island are breathing a little easier, one group is secretly disappointed: the four-wheel drive brigade. Always confident that their vehicles can cope with the traction demands of slippery conditions, these motorists are secretly cursing the fine weather of late.

The 'green', anti four-wheel drive argument has been silenced - for now. Dare I say it, but even full-fat Range Rovers get admiring glances these days from most motorists. The only downside to owning a big four-wheel drive car is the running costs, which can be crippling! Big cars need a lot of power simply to shift them and that generally means high fuel bills, emissions and road tax. Sales of the big off-road stuff have come to a standstill and all the major carmakers are offering smaller cars, e.g. the brilliant Range Rover Evoque costs a fraction of a full fat Range Rover – but it is still a €40,000 car. Subaru and Suzuki offer excellent and more affordable 4X4s, but FIAT has secured the entry point with the Panda 4X4.

Panda was first launched in 1980; the second generation came along in 2003 and was crowned European Car of the Year in 2004. Both generations of the front-wheel drive car had a 4X4 version in the range. Now, after some 6.4m sales worldwide, the third generation is being launched. We are still some time away from a new 4X4 version, so FIAT Ireland has decided to continue the current Panda 4X4 for a limited run at a very tempting price.

A 1.2-litre petrol engine that pushes out 69bhp powers the four-seat hatchback. There is a lockable four-wheel drive differential, so Panda is genuinely useful off-road. On the open road it's not a rocket but it 'feels' quick enough. It is well equipped, too, with front fog lights, roof rails, remote central locking, electric front windows and air-con all coming as standard.

Panda 4X4 falls into tax band 'B' and consumes 6 litres of petrol per 100km on the combined fuel cycle – not great economy for a pint-sized town car but brilliant for a four-wheel drive! Panda 4X4 sits on taller suspension and is fitted with 14-inch alloys and special all-terrain tyres. The alloys are tiny, but they look the part on what is, after all, a tiny car.

The driving position is commanding; the cabin is functional and, of course, there is the 'City' button that you can press to make the steering even lighter at lower speeds. The car has a great turning circle and its narrow profile means that modern car park spaces look generous. Panda 4X4 is simply great fun and the fact it can go almost anywhere makes it a real giggle. One time I parked it on a grassy bank at a particularly packed supermarket - because I could!

You only have to drive through any hilly part of Italy to see original and second-generation Panda 4X4s at work next to olive trees or on rougher terrain where you'd only find mountain goats!

I would definitely have a Panda 4X4 in my garage - it makes me smile.

The Panda 4X4 is the ideal vehicle to do Armageddon on a budget!

Michael Sheridan