FIAT HAS HIT THE GROUND RUNNING WITH ITS SMART AND FUNKY 2016 500X, ITS FIRST COMPACT SUV. IT IS ONE OF THE BEST WE'VE SEEN FROM FIAT IN RECENT YEARS.
Like its namesake, the tiny 500, the 500X takes its styling inspiration from Fiats past. That’s where the similarities end however, with the new SUV owing nothing to the retro-cute three-door hatch.
In fact, it’s more closely related to Jeep’s boxy Renegade SUV - not that you’d pick it at first glance. It's not perfect, but this new little SUV has a lot going for it.
Vehicle Style: Compact SUV
Price: Pop Star $33,000, Lounge $38,000 (plus on-roads)
Pop Star: 103kW/230Nm 1.4 4cyl turbo petrol | 6spd dual-clutch automatic
Lounge: 125kW/250Nm 1.4 4cyl turbo petrol | 9spd automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: Pop Star 5.7 l/100km, Lounge 6.7 l/100km | tested: Pop Star 7.3 l/100km
Like the 500, the 500X presents an interior laden with decorative touches, a repetitive circular styling theme, retro door handles, and, depending on the spec, there are glossy dash highlights and two-tone seat trims on offer.
But it isn’t a big car - slightly shorter in fact than Mazda's CX-3, a little taller, but riding on an identical wheelbase.
Despite that, a base model 500X Pop manual kicks off from $28,000 compared to the $19,990 ask for a CX-3 Neo manual (admittedly the Mazda is one of the cheapest in its class, but that’s still a yawning chasm).
The 500X answers by offering a 5.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, rear park-assist, leather-clad steering wheel, 16-inch alloy wheels, and cruise control among its standard features.
It also happens to feel quite perky from behind the wheel. Jump from the front-wheel-drive Pop and Pop Star into an all-wheel-drive Lounge or Cross Plus and there’s even more oomph, and a totally transformed feel behind the wheel.
We took the two mid-grade models for an introductory spin, Pop Star and Lounge, one 2WD drive and six-speed dual clutch auto, the other all-wheel-drive and nine-speed auto.
- Pop Star: Cloth seat trim, cruise control, manual air conditioning, self-dimming rear view mirror, fold-forward passenger seat, powered lumbar adjustment (driver’s seat), auto lights and wipers, proximity key and push-button start, 17-inch alloy wheels
- Lounge: (in addition to Pop Star) Premium vinyl and fabric seat trim, dual-zone climate control, automatic high beam, privacy glass, chrome window trim, 18-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: 6.5-inch Uconnect touchscreen, satellite navigation, Bluetooth phone and audio, six speakers (eight speakers, subwoofer and BeatsAudio premium sound on Lounge)
- Options available: Dual-pane sunroof $2000, Leather seat package $2500
- Cargo volume: 346 litres (seats up) expandable via 60:40 folding rear seat
There’s no mistaking the interior of the 500X - it is distinctly Fiat, following the design rules set down by the 500 hatch, but with a more up-to-date look and feel.
There’s a few common elements shared with other Fiat Chrysler vehicles, like the steering wheel buttons, and the Uconnect infotainment system, but it works well together.
Surprisingly, despite a relatively small footprint, the interior of the 500X feels generously proportioned, with decent front seat space and a comfortable amount of room in the rear.
There are some clever ‘large car’ touches like the thickly padded armrests, that make the 500X feel plush.
The mesh fabric seat-inserts of the Pop Star have a cool look and feel too, with the fabric trim feeling nicer than the ‘premium vinyl’ and fabric combo of the more expensive Lounge.
The driving position feels a bit out-of-sorts - if you’re long armed but short legged like me you’ll fit fine - my co-driver, with the opposing affliction wasn’t so happy with the set-up.
The A-pillars are huge as well, you’ll need to move around in your seat to check past them and make sure they’re not hiding an oncoming vehicle or errant pedestrian.
Head for the boot and there’s 346 litres to play with, expandable via 60:40 folding rear seats. The boot floor is a little high to lift into but decent width and depth make it a useful space.
ON THE ROAD
- Pop Star: 103kW/230Nm 1.4 litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
- Lounge: 125kW/250Nm 1.4 litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
- Transmissions: Pop Star: 6-spd dual-clutch automatic, 2WD; Lounge: 9-spd automatic, all-wheel-drive
- Towing capacity: 1200kg braked, 600kg unbraked
To get an idea of what you might expect from the 500X we tried out both the front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive versions, with both tied respectively to automatic transmissions.
Starting with the Pop Star, it offers a 1.4 litre four-cylinder turbo engine that produces 103kW and 230Nm. In lesser Pop specification it comes with a choice of six-speed manual, or six-speed dual clutch automatic while the Pop Star does without a manual option.
On the road, the automatic surprised with its smooth and stable low-speed driving - the shuddery low-speed characteristics of some dual-clutch systems are quite subdued in the the 500X.
As for the engine, it feels like it packs a decent punch. Though the lower-powered model, the turbocharged 230Nm of torque (which is not far short of the Lounge's 250Nm), really helps and the 500X pulls smoothly from low engine revs.
The ride around town is smooth and pleasant, and works well on rougher roads, absorbing big hits and corrugations fairly well.
Switching to the all-wheel-drive Lounge we immediately noticed a few subtle differences.
The engine in the Lounge measures the same 1.4 litres, but produces a more lively 125kW and 250Nm. Both Lounge and top-spec Cross Plus are teamed with a nine-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive.
In most circumstances, there is no huge performance boost from the higher output engine, but, when overtaking or slotting into fast-moving traffic, it is a little more willing (though neither is underdone).
The grip offered by the all-wheel-drive system is certainly more noticeable - on some of the winding roads and loose shoulders we encountered, we found the Lounge tracked more truly and with a little more confidence.
On these roads, the 2WD Pop Star was a little inclined to wash into oversteer.
Ride quality in the Lounge is no match the Pop Star however. Although the Lounge will blot out bigger hits from broken tarmac, the 2WD Pop Star (with smaller 17-inch wheels) feels a little more settled over smaller bumps and surface imperfections.
The nine-speed automatic in the 500X is the same as you’ll find used in Jeep’s Cherokee and Renegade, this time around however the shift mapping seems more alert, and better suited to use in Aussie traffic.
The car we drove however had a nasty habit of clunking between gears when shifting from second to third - that was also something we encountered in the Cherokee last year and looks like something that still needs attention.
Otherwise, the 500X is a nimble little package around town, it can hold its own against other traffic from a standstill, has a fun-to-drive feeling from behind the wheel, and offers a decent ride.
ANCAP rating: The 500X is yet to be tested by ANCAP
Safety features: Stability control, traction control, rollover mitigation hill start assist, reversing camera, and seven airbags. Lounge and Cross Plus also gain lane departure warning and forward collision assist, which can also be option on the Pop Star, but not the Pop for $1000.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
Despite operating in a similar price bracket, and sharing its underpinnings, Fiat doesn’t see the Jeep Renegade as a competitor. We think most buyers will take a look at both while they’re in an FCA dealership, but they have a very different appeal.
Nissan’s Qashqai is similar money, and a favourite with style-driven buyers, just like the Mazda CX-3. Despite being larger, the well-finished Hyundai Tuscon appeals, while MINI’s Countryman, though getting on in years, takes the 500X on in the lower part of its price range.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
While it lacks a bargain-priced model to lure the budget-conscious, there is something a little special about the 500X, and it fares well against other up-specced competitors in the small SUV segment.
Its borrowed retro wardrobe also fits comfortably with its broader SUV stance, while the interior is breezy and fun.
In particular, the new little SUV appeals for its tidy handling, peppy engines, and (in front-wheel-drive models), pleasant ride comfort.
It is however in a very tough segment, and its higher pricing takes a little of the shine off its appeal.
That said, our first impression of this new little Fiat is of a stylish little package, with enough Italian charm to win buyers back to the Fiat badge.
Note: Images of the Pop Star have been used throughout this review; check out the gallery for other variants in the new 500X range.
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