Fiat 500X

Italian style meets American engineering

TOBY HAGON

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

GETTING noticed in the small-SUV segment is a lot harder in 2015 than it was a year or two ago.

Talented new arrivals have packed what was previously a largely neglected niche segment to the gunwales.

But Fiat thinks it has the trick with its 500X, which will land in Oz in the third quarter. Part Jeep but with healthy lashings of Italian style, the 500X borrows design themes from the tiny 500 and is Fiat’s retro-infused take on the booming segment.

Underneath, it shares components with the Jeep Renegade but brings a distinctive design and city-focused flavour.

Built in Italy alongside the Jeep, the 500X is a soft-roader for those chasing a little pizzazz.

While it shares almost nothing with the cutesy 500 city car other than part of its name, the ‘X’ bit signifies Fiat’s first-ever crossover SUV – if, for a blissful moment, we can pretend the Europe-only Sedici (a badge-engineered Suzuki SX4) never existed.

As is the case with so many Italian cars, aesthetics are key.

The 500-esque headlights and curvaceous high-riding lines define a vehicle dreaming of big things. But whereas the MPV-ish five-door 500L looks bloated and awkward, the 500X gets much closer to proportional acceptance with a high-rider wagon body.

Inside, there’s lots to like. A simple 6.5-inch touchscreen atop the dash (entry models get a 5.0-inch unit) and partial digital instrument cluster (Jeep drivers will recognise the fonts) add the requisite tech for what Fiat promises will be a well-specified car. Silver finishes lift the tone, although it would be better if they were closer to real metal; the door handles in particular feel cheap.

Top-spec 500X variants pick up boomy ‘Beats by Dre’ stereos perfect for Millennials.

Rear-seat occupants need to be below-average adult dimensions because legroom is tight and headroom only adequate, but at least there’s good side vision and a decent view forward. Sitting high gives an SUV feel, but the lack of upper body support soon becomes apparent when changing direction.

It’s a shame because the 500X is dynamically capable. The fully independent suspension is taut and jars over sharp-edged bumps, but remains compliant and well-controlled over larger ones. On Northern Italy roads at the tail end of ski season, our car wears winter tyres, but grip from the 18-inch rubber is acceptable, the front gently sliding wide as you push on.

The electrically assisted steering is overly light and doesn’t offer much meaningful feedback, but is devoid of unwanted kickback and it responds faithfully.

Fiat’s familiar 1.4-litre turbo four is available in two tunes, but it’s the low-output 103kW version we’re testing here. Unspectacular power is backed up by a more than generous 230Nm that arrives low in the rev range. Acceleration to 100km/h is claimed to take 9.8sec and it feels snappy enough.

Even better is the low-rev muscle after a hint of turbo lag.

There’s a wriggle of torque steer, albeit not the unwieldy, send-you-across-two-lanes type exhibited by some older hot hatches. But it’s not enough to spoil what is a thoroughly likeable car that promises to sprinkle some retro charm on the emergent small-SUV segment.

While the ‘Old Cow’ dark tan leather trim, gleaming exterior door handles and metal-look interior finishes might tempt plenty, there’s no shortage of substance to a small wagon that also happens to be a big Fiat. miliar ilable -ng acked ous r t t ited s. at r ome e m, es ishes re’s ns

01 GROWN UP

500X is a much bigger car than Fiat’s three-door retro star.

Measuring 4.25m long, 1.8m (350L) for sporty style. wide and 1.6m tall, it’s broader than the small SUV norm, but sacrifices some boot space

02 POWER UP

get a nine-speed auto.

We’ll get 1.4L turbo-petrol fours, not the turbo-diesels and atmo petrols sold elsewhere. The 103kW front-driver will offer six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch ’boxes, while the 125kW AWD will

03 OPTION UP

In Europe, the 500X is highly customisable. Buyers choose from 12 colours, eight wheel leather and various colours. designs for the 16s, 17s and 18s, plus seven interior configurations mixing fabric,

Honda HR-V VTi-S $27,990 H$

CVT-only and no option of all-wheel drive, but the HR-V brings excellent packaging, plus an upmarket interior and a quality feel. Distinctive styling and decent driving manners make it a solid small-SUV offering.

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Mazda CX-3 sTouring $26,990 M$

BROAD model range and competitive pricing team with excellent dynamics and a strong petrol engine to make the CX-3 a class standout. Not exactly roomy, though, which makes it more of a couple-plus-dog proposition.

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Going Pop

THE 500X will be available in four trim levels. The base Pop will come with the 103kW 1.4 turbo and is expected to get cruise control and reversing camera, while the Pop Star will share mechanicals but get more equipment and different wheels.

The leather-clad Lounge gets a 125kW version of the same engine and all-wheel drive. There’s also optional active safety gear (partial auto braking, lane-departure warning and blind-spot monitor).

The flagship is the Cross Plus (below), with some extra off-road hardware.