Fiat launching its baby crossover this year
Fiat joins the fastest-growing segment of the motor industry, compact SUVs, with the introduction this year of the 500X.
The Italian marque describes its new model as a “compact crossover,” and says it will go on sale in this country during the last three months of this year.
The new model is built on the same platform as the Jeep Renegade, reflecting Fiat’s ownership of the Chrysler-Jeep brand.
But the Fiat 500X is not a thrown-together afterthought, or some trumped up styling exercise based on the now legendary and still popular Fiat 500. Instead the 500X is a capable and comfortable compact SUV.
Fiat says it has never viewed the ‘nouvo 500’ (or ‘new 500’as the Italians call it) as one standalone vehicle. Rather, it sees the 500 as a family of vehicles, with the 500X compact SUV simply the latest addition to that growing family. Given the rampant popularity of compact SUVs around the world, it’s a segment that Fiat needed to get into, and it required a solid vehicle to compete for market share.
The company hasn’t confirmed pricing or final specification for New Zealand, but representatives told us to expect it to sit ‘right in the middle of its competitive set’ in terms of price.
We drove a strange mixture of specification and inclusions at the launch in Italy, so it’s difficult to judge the exact cabin that will land in New Zealand, but the all round fit, finish and choice of materials is impressive.
Some surfaces feature harder plastics, but important touch points like where your elbow rests on the centre console, and the door tops, are tastefully trimmed. If this isn’t the best cabin Fiat has produced, it’s extremely close. There’s a sense that Fiat has paid close attention to the overall engineering of the 500X, such is its solid, well-executed feel.
Buyers here will be able to choose between four different trim levels - Pop, Pop Star, Lounge and Cross Plus. The Cross Plus is the only variant in the range to get an AWD system, and it also features an enhanced ramp-over angle for extra off-road cred. The other three variants in the range are all FWD.
There will be two different tunes of the 1.4-litre engine as well as three gearbox options, depending on the model variant. The entry level Pop and second tier Pop Star are powered by the ‘low tune’ engine which generates 103kW at 5000rpm and 230Nm at 1750rpm. That engine can be matched to either a six-speed manual or six speed dual-clutch automatic. Pop Star is available as automatic only.
The Lounge and Cross Plus variants step up in power and torque with that tune generating 125kW at 5500rpm, and 250Nm at 2500rpm. Both variants are available only with the nine-speed automatic, a gearbox we sadly didn’t get to sample in Italy. We were also only able to test the low-tune version of the 1.4-litre engine.
You might think that the addition of two extra doors - even without the longer wheelbase - would take away from the funky retro styling the 500 has become renowned for. It doesn’t. The 500X still looks exactly like a Fiat 500, even from side on.
The front is unmistakable, as is the rear styling and if you’re a Fiat 500 fan, you won’t be disappointed. The added ride height doesn’t make the 500X look silly either - the exterior design is very cohesive.
Two areas are critical in the move from compact car, to compact SUV, and Fiat needed to get both right with the 500X. Buyers in this segment desire ride comfort and a usable second row seat. The Fiat handles Turin’s dubious roads with aplomb, soaking up the worst ruts and bumps without ever losing composure or transmitting thumps and harshness into the cabin.
The second row seating is also spacious enough for adults. Three won’t be too comfortable across the second row, but two adults will fit back there quite comfortably. Luggage space looks to be competitive for the segment as well.
We’re behind the wheel of the low tune version of the 1.4-litre, paired to the six-speed manual and it’s a snappy combination, especially in the cut and thrust of Turin’s mid-morning traffic.
We appreciated the smooth operation of the clutch too. You’re able to crawl along in traffic smoothly and you never feel like you’re operating an on/off switch.
The 500X gets up to speed rapidly enough not to be left lagging at the lights, and roll on overtaking once we hit the motorway is also dispatched safely. A lengthy run at 180km/h on the motorway proves the diminutive four-cylinder can wind up some speed too.
When the back roads get twisty and more demanding, the 500X’s front end grip especially comes into its own. It feels planted at any speed, certainly faster than you’ll ever drive with passengers in the car, with the speed sensitive power steering making a difference here too.
You can have real fun behind the wheel of the 500X once you leave the traffic behind. There’s solid weight to the steering at speed, but a user-friendly lightness to the system around town in traffic, mixing the best of both worlds.
Forward visibility is excellent, there’s plenty of adjustment to the seats and steering column, and the gauges are never obscured no matter what your seating preference. Maneuvering and parking the 500X is as easy as its smaller two-door 500 sibling.
The 6.5-inch touchscreen in our test 500X was clear and responsive, and the satellite navigation was easy to work through and follow. I paired a mobile phone to the system and that process was refreshingly easy, and clear, once connected. Retro touches like the body-coloured dash fascia ensure the interior is more visually appealing than most.
Two factors we look forward to testing are the nine-speed automatic and pointing the AWD variant in the direction of some off-road tracks. While more isn’t always better, the nine-speed (like it does with the Renegade) in theory looks to be a great addition to this segment. Few 500X’s will ever go off-road, but the AWD 500X variant should be able to deal with basic camping tracks and forest trails given its Jeep Renegade underpinnings.
If you’re in the market for a compact SUV and you desire clever, retro styling, the 500X has no peer. There’s nothing gimmicky about the first SUV to wear a 500 badge.
The only other compact SUV with as much appeal in a visual sense is the 500X’s stablemate, the Jeep Renegade. The 500X’s cabin isn't quite as premium as the top end of this segment, but if the pricing is right, it will represent great value for money.