PART Jeep but with healthy lashings of Italian style, the 500X is Fiat’s retro-infused take on the booming small-SUV segment
WHAT IS IT?
Fiat’s first proper SUV (so not counting the Freelander, a Fiat-badged Dodge Journey). It just happens to borrow styling themes from the tiny 500. Underneath it shares components with the Jeep Renegade, but brings a distinctive design and city-focused flavour. Produced in Italy, the pint-size SUV is a soft-roader for those chasing a little pizzazz.
WHY WE’RE TESTING IT
The Fiat 500X will arrive in Australia in the third quarter of 2015 as the latest newcomer to the small-SUV segment. We get behind the wheel in Turin, Italy, for a taste test.
There are plenty of older, underwhelming small SUVs in the crosshairs (we’re looking at you Ford EcoSport, Mitsubishi ASX, Suzuki S-Cross…) but it’s the 2015 new arrivals that are more serious competitors. Think Mazda CX-3, Renault Captur, Honda HR-V and Jeep Renegade.
THE WHEELS VERDICT
There’s plenty to like about Fiat’s Jeep-infused baby SUV entrant.
PLUS: design touches inside and out; brave trim elements; torquey 1.4 turbo; decent dynamics; active safety tech on some models
MINUS: ride over sharp bumps; mild torque steer from FWD models; tight back seat; front seats lack lateral support
THE WHEELS REVIEW
GETTING noticed in the small-SUV segment is a lot harder in 2015 than it was a year or two ago. Unexpectedly talented arrivals have packed what was previously a niche (and largely neglected) segment to the gunwales.
Fiat thinks it has the trick with its 500X, which comes to Oz in the third quarter. While it shares almost nothing with the cutesy 500 city car other than part of its name, the X represents the crossover in what is the brand’s first SUV – if, for a blissful moment at least, we can pretend the Freemont never happened.
As is the case with so many Italian cars, aesthetics are key. The retro-infused 500-esque headlights and curvaceous high-riding lines define a vehicle dreaming of big things. But whereas the five-door 500L almost-MPV looks bloated and awkward, the 500X gets much closer to proportional acceptance with a high-rider wagon body.
Inside there’s lots to like. Simple 6.5-inch colour touchscreen atop the dash (entry models get a 5.0-inch unit) and partial digital instrument cluster (Jeep drivers will recognise the fonts and switchgear) 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 plasticky cheap. Top-spec models pick up boomy ‘Beats by Dre’ stereos perfect for Millennials.
It will be best if rear-seat occupants are below average adult dimensions because legroom is tight and headroom only adequate. At least there’s good side vision and a higher bench for a decent view. Sitting higher gives an SUV feel, but the lack of upper body support soon becomes apparent; changes of direction has you bracing with your knees.
It’s a shame because the 500X is dynamically capable. The independent suspension is taut and jars over sharp-edged bumps, but compliant and well-behaved over larger ones, settling quickly. On northern Italian roads at the tail end of ski season, our car is running on 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 four-cylinder turbo is available in two tunes, but it’s the lower-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 9.8 seconds 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, though, albeit not the unwieldy send-you-across-two-lanes type exhibited by some older hot hatches. 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 doorhandles 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.
Model: Fiat 500X Lounge 1.4
Engine: 1368cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 103kW @ 5000rpm
Max torque: 230Nm @ 1750rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Kerb weight: 1320kg
Price: $27,000 (estimated)
On sale: August