Fiat 500X

X marks the spot for Fiatís compact-SUV riches

ALEX INWOOD

FIRST AUSSIE DRIVE

ON PAPER, itís genius. Steal the cutesy styling cues of the retro Fiat 500, stretch them over the bulging bones of a compact SUV, and laugh all the way to the bank. Itís the new Italian Job.

The 500X marks the latest addition to the ever-expanding 500 family (the first was the elephantine 500L MPV thingy not sold here), and promises to be the brandís most popular model, such is Australiaís insatiable lust for the now ubiquitous compact SUV.

It needs to be good. And for the most part, it makes the cut. Stylish, well-built and well-specced, the 500X adds Italian flair and individuality to the compact SUV segment. But while cheerful, it definitely isnít cheap.

Starting at $28,000 for the entry-level Pop manual, the range stretches to $39,000 for the off-road-focused Cross Plus, positioning the 500X at the expensive end of its class.

And donít let the 500 badge fool you, either, because underneath this isnít a Fiat 500 at all. Itís a Jeep Renegade, wearing a chic Italian designer suit. The two share the same underpinnings, gearboxes and 1.4-litre MultiAir engine, but the Fiatís independent suspension is tuned differently to suit its sportier, inner-city image.

Four trim levels are offered: Pop, Pop Star, Lounge and Cross Plus, and thereís a strong emphasis on personalisation thanks to 12 exterior colours and multiple wheel, decal, mirror and key fob designs. No lack of options, then.

Inside, the cheery cabin is nicely finished with heaps of funky, cinquecento-inspired touches. Itís roomy, too, with space enough in the back for two tall adults on the high rear bench and a decent 350-litre boot for all the luggage.

Sharp steering and honest handling are dynamic strengths, but the trade-off is a firmer than expected ride in a high-riding SUV. Our test cars rolled on 17- and 18-inch wheels, which jarred over sharp-edged bumps.

Two tunes of the same 1.4 turbopetrol are offered: a 103kW/230Nm version in the front-drive Pop and Pop Star and a 125kW/250Nm unit in the all-wheel-drive Lounge and Cross Plus. Both are strong, but the lower output drivetrain is more convincing. Unlike four-wheel drive models that are paired with an absent-minded, and at times jerky, nine-speed auto, the Pop and Pop Star have the choice of a sweetshifting six-speed manual or Fiatís familiar six-speed dual-clutch Ė both of which are better options.

So the 500X only partly delivers on its on-paper promise. Oodles of character and fluid dynamics are obvious strengths, but its firm ride, dopey auto calibration and steep price mean it isnít as complete a compact SUV as some of its rivals.

So itís form over function, just in a likeable, Italian kind of way. d

PLUS & MINUS

Stiff ride; absent-minded nine-speed auto; all that style isnít cheap Stylish exterior; quality interior; fluid dynamics; optional safety tech

Stock standard

The 500Xís cabin is bristling with standard equipment.

Every model boasts cruise control, reverse camera, rear park assist, Bluetooth, tyrepressure monitoring and a leather steering wheel with paddle shifters. Safety gear includes seven airbags and blind-spot monitoring, and upper-spec Lounge and Cross Plus variants add forwardcollision and lane-departure warning. Audiophiles will like the option of a nine-speaker Beats by Dre hi-fi.