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A Fiat Panda 4x4... up Mount Etna

  1. When things smoke, it is usually an indication that something unfortunate is imminent. In fact, there are great swathes of things regarded with more affection when they have not recently been, or are possibly about to be, a little bit on fire.

    The engine in your car, for instance. Or most types of food. Unclaimed packages in airports. And mountains. Mountains are generally high on the list of things to avoid when they start to do something as uncharacteristic as lightly smoulder. But this being TopGear, I am currently at the base of a mountain frothing great gouts of smoke and steam, preparing to drive to the top. If the health and safety people are reading this, then I couldn’t find the appropriate form. Honest.

    Pictures: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. The hell-hill in question is Mount Etna, in south-easternish Sicily, one of the most active volcanos in the world. A volcano so animate that if you tot up the major eruptions of the 20th century, they number in double figures. There are ‘events’ every few months. The last big one was in October 2012. And, incidentally, last night, accompanied by a modest geological cough that measured 3.8 on the Richter scale. So today - obviously - we are going to try driving up it. Something usually forbidden, because it’s a bit dangerous. For this, we require an adventure vehicle equipped with huge tyres and a massive engine, a behemoth festooned with winches and ropes and possibly anti-volcano armour. Something to protect us in case the mountain burns down. Again.

    Unfortunately, we have not brought that vehicle. Instead, we have arrived equipped with a completely standard Fiat Panda 4x4. Though we have fitted winter tyres, there’s a nagging feeling we may have arrived ever-so-slightly ill-equipped for this little expedition.

  3. The situation does not bode particularly well on the drive up. Etna - all 10,922 feet of it - dominates the totality of the view that isn’t sea from the town of Catania. And it’s hard to miss, because it’s the hill smoking like a recently fired cannon, or the remnants of the biggest firework you’ve ever seen. Which, in a sense, it is, because Etna is a vigorous stratovolcano two and a half times the size of Vesuvius.

    It’s famous for featuring in Greek mythology as the place where Typhon (comfortingly called ‘father of all monsters’) was imprisoned by Zeus for being naughty, somewhere in an annexe to the forges of Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, which are also apparently secreted under Etna’s 459-square-mile base.

  4. Sounds scary, but the bottom bit is simply pretty. Across the plain of Catania in the shadow of Etna spreads a patchwork of orchards and vineyards, rooted in the fertile volcanic soil left over from previous eruptions. It’s surprisingly green, and the Panda slips into the bucolic scene as if made for it. As Etna swells in the windscreen, the bulbous little Fiat tackles the sweeping, newly laid mountain roads without fuss, little 1.3-litre MultiJet diesel thrumming through a five-speed manual.

    It might not be exactly crisp in its reactions, and understeer is close at hand, thanks to a couple of inches of increased height over the standard car, but the ride is supple and mature for a supermini, the body tempted into tilt but never loose. On the wet leaves and remnants of an icy dawn that shroud the bottom of the mountain, it even flickers its 4x4 system into life and drags itself out of frosty junctions without spinning wheels. This, one would suggest, is probably all that most owners would come to expect - a degree of extra surety in slippery conditions. But it looks as if we’ll need a bit more than that. As if to prove some sort of meteorological point, it immediately begins to rain.

  5. Above the forest, gently catching its own kind of fire as autumn marches its colours through the trees, old lava becomes more obvious. Spiky and yellow-green, it makes the landscape look austere and alien. And unexpectedly beautiful. Colonised by lichen, this is the old stuff, persuaded down to the sea by channels carved out of the side of the hill by humans desperate to divert molten lava away from villages.

    Nature’s indifferent rampage nurtured into the soothing arms of the sea. Again, I’m impressed by the little Panda. It feels grown-up and capable, and, after pottering for a while, we finally arrive at the base of Etna feeling a little more robust about our chances, eventually pulling up at the place where the cable car starts and most civilian traffic stops. Today, though, we have The Permissions, and the barriers rise for us.

  6. Somewhat inevitably, there’s a dark green first-generation Panda 4x4 at the bottom of the mountain. It’s the Sisley special edition, still wearing the Steyr-Puch badges. Fondness swells. It’s tiny, with tyres barely a handspan wide, and so tinny and basic it could have come free with a box of Sicilian cereal.

    But there are lots of cues that point at the latest version, and it exudes the kind of straight-edged, fuss-free charm it’s impossible to engineer with modern, crash-safe cars. A brief conversation with the owner, and it turns out this Panda has covered 380,000km (about 236,000 miles) on its original engine. Actually,
    no one really knows how far it’s been, because for “some years” in the Nineties, the speedo was broken.

  7. There are, of course, easier ways to get up Mount Etna than Panda-based transport. There’s a cable car that can take you about two-thirds of the way - though you still have to hike the last bit to get to the very top - or off-road buses that can deliver you to a point at the base of the biggest caldera. The ‘buses’ are serious bits of off-road kit, based as they are on the Mercedes Unimog, and the Fiat seems comprehensively outgunned parked next to one, which, again, doesn’t augur particularly cheerfully.

    It’s not too long before we realise why the Etna taxi service needs such hardcore rigs. The ‘road’ up the side of Etna is basically a track bulldozed along the line of least resistance. So it meanders like an old man’s conversation: a series of switchbacks here and there, a long straight bit, a few sweeping curves and a smattering of spurs that lead to vertiginous dead ends.

  8. There are no barriers, and the lava that surrounds them is as sharp as wit. Walk around on the stuff, and you realise that it’s like balancing on the remains of a bonfire. While some is crunchy and brittle, the bits that don’t crunch into powder feel like coral, all sharp and fossilised. If you fall over, it hurts. I know. I fell over. It looked like I’d been trapped in a sackful of angry cats.

    The Panda doesn’t grind its way up the slopes like a traditional 4x4, but scampers. First gear is deliberately low to negate the need for a separate and mostly redundant low-ratio gearbox, and second requires a little speed to prevent bogging down, so the little car bounds up the slopes, bouncing and clawing at the loose surface.

  9. But the Panda is small and relatively light, and leaves no trace of its passing, apart from disturbing the foggy cloud that cloaks this level of the Etna landscape. Except the weirdly humid and wispy cloud cover isn’t cloud at all. It’s steam. As we climb higher, the temperature drops, and it becomes obvious that what we assumed was low-level cumulus is actually vapour rising from the floor.

    The Earth’s magma blood runs hot and close here. The sandy, rocky ground is jet-black cooled lava, bracketed by patches of snow. There is blood-warm steam everywhere, and deep-fried crispy terra underfoot. But again, stark as it is, it’s got a kind of grim charm. A strain of violent grace. But it’s the kind of beauty that makes you nervous. The kind of beauty in the potential of, say, a mountain-shaped grenade.

  10. Slowly, we wend our way up the track, the lava gradually blanketed by purest white snow. The Panda flickers its traction control and differential lights for the Haldex clutch repeatedly, the blinking yellow eye indicating increased severity, even though it’s hard to detect in the cabin.

    Still we keep going. The scenery has gone full post-apocalyptic, the charred remains of bits of houses poking out from under smoking sand, the rocks shocked into harsh shapes. The Panda looks soft and round and terribly vulnerable up here.

  11. Eventually, we get to the point where the World’s Toughest Tour Buses give up and turn around, and only walking trails remain. Trails guarded by large rocks hefted into position to prevent vehicles from going any further. Except they were not prepared for a car just over five feet wide, and I manage to squeeze the Panda between the barriers and head up toward the ridgeline of the caldera.

    We are now on hiking trails barely the Panda’s width, sometimes on snow, sometimes on that gently steaming black sand. A spooky situation. No other 4x4 could get here, because not even the most hardcore SUV could have inveigled itself into the position a humble little Fiat has managed, for the simple reason they would fall off the side and die. I’m not going to think about that for a little while.

  12. The going is getting increasingly tough though, and the Panda requires higher revs to maintain forward momentum, the occasions we resort to the low first gear to claim supremacy over lumps getting ever more frequent. The hard-packed lava sand is easy enough to find purchase on, but as soon as we try to traverse the snowy bits - or the looser lava marbles with the steam rising between them - the Panda’s skinny tyres start to cut into the surface rather than float over it.

    With only 75bhp and 107lb ft of torque to play with, and the thinning atmosphere adding an asthmatic intake of oxygen, eventually we hit a deep patch of snow, the Panda bogs and huffs to a stop. Only 100ft from the ridge line and a victory of sorts.

  13. We try to dig the car further up, but every time the 4x4 engages to try to lift the car higher, the lack of grip and meaningful torque from low enough in the rev range means that the Panda is sucked to a dead stop. Well, the torque issue and the clutch smoke pouring out of the bonnet after one particularly vigorous effort. After what seems like an age, we dig the Panda out of its resting place and happily canter off back down Mount Etna with blessed relief.

    There’s a sense of pregnancy about Etna, of bloat and indigestion, and it’s making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But after a bit, I decide that I’m imagining it, and we stop to take a final few pictures. I stare back up the steep, gravelly slopes and realise that the Panda 4x4, this little 15-grand hatchback, has taken us further than any of the big, expensive SUVs could have possibly hoped. Up a living volcano. It may be a small car, but it has a huge heart.

  14. Sometime later, we pad down the hill, send the Panda home and retire to the airport, convinced that the feeling of portent leaking from Etna was all in our imagination.

    We were - of course - wrong. As we boarded our plane home, Mount Etna erupted, spewing a small trickle of molten lava down the side of the mountain a couple of hundred feet from where we were stuck. Which goes to prove two things: one, that Pandas always fare better out in the wild, and two, that the bit about avoiding smoking mountains remains terribly good advice.

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