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You want to join the growing army of people moving into small crossover SUVs, but you aren’t necessarily the sensible family type. You want something a little more style-focused. What do you buy?

For prospective buyers at this end of town — maybe trading up from their little city car into something bigger, or downsizing from something larger and more practical — there are two options that come to mind. One brand new, one now established.

They are the all-new Fiat 500X and the hugely popular Mazda CX-3 — two little SUVs you buy if you believe first impressions last. Think of each as the logical step up from the Fiat 500 and Mazda 2

Neither of this pair are the roomiest in class, that would be the Honda HR-V. Nor are they the cheapest, since Mitsubishi is discounting its ASX like mad and Suzuki is very aggressive with its Vitara. Want the most rugged? Perhaps opt for a Subaru XV.

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What this pair have in common, and what sets them apart, is design. Both are fun and funky and as far as this class of car is concerned, perhaps the coolest kids in the classroom. The Fiat has the added bonus of genuine budget Euro style, meaning it will in all likelihood be shopped against the Mini Countryman and Renault Captur

The Fiat, launched just a few months ago, is just one of many iterations of the famous 500 nameplate sold worldwide. Here we test the mid-range Fiat 500X Pop Star variant (how twee) that retails for $33,000 plus on-road costs. Read our pricing and specifications rundown on the full Fiat 500X range here.

Coming up against the little Italian Stallion is the $33,290 Mazda CX-3 Akari, which has the benefit of being the flagship variant in the CX-3 line-up. Read our pricing and specifications rundown on the full Mazda CX-3 range here.

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Both the 500X Pop Star and CX-3 Akari are tested here in front-wheel drive configurations — though the Mazda can be had at this spec level in all-wheel drive for another $2000 — because a low-powered hatch on stilts is perfectly fine using only two driven wheels.

Based on form, it’s the Mazda CX-3 that enters this test with the expectation of victory on its shoulders. Predictably, it has been a smash hit since it launched in March 2015, racing to third in the class sales race behind the ASX and defunct Hyundai ix35 over the course of last year.

So the Fiat gets to play challenger. For the Italian brand, gaining buyer awareness is the key — at least, buyers who aren’t niche diehards. Is it a worthy match for the Japanese option, or at least worth a quick cross-shop before you sign the dotted line?

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Standard equipment

In the battle of standard equipment, it’s the Mazda that gets the nod. Both cars on test get standard equipment including Bluetooth phone and audio, touchscreens with satellite-navigation, rain-sensing wipers, push-button start, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, cruise control and a reverse-view camera.

But the Mazda, as the flagship variant in the range, also gets leather/suede seats (leather is a $2500 option on the Fiat), a sunroof ($2000 extra on the Fiat), active safety extras such as lane assist and low-speed autonomous braking and a nifty head-up display.

Neither of our test cars were fitted with options. Indeed, you can’t buy any options on the Mazda CX-3 Akari — even metallic paint is free, with the exception of the beautiful Soul Red that costs a reasonable $200. Metallic/premium paint on the 500X costs between $500 and $1800 depending on colour.

The Mazda gets seven airbags compared to the Fiat’s six (the extra being one for the driver’s knee). ANCAP awarded the CX-3 five stars, while the Fiat is yet to be tested.

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Cabin layout

What is the thing the average small SUV buyer wants? A little bit of height. Both of these cars sit higher than their city hatch siblings (the Fiat 500 and Mazda 2), and are therefore a little easier to climb into and see out of. In particular the Fiat, with its seats sitting a few centimetres higher off the ground than the Mazda. But both are still low enough to feel a little sporty, too.

The Mazda CX-3 Akari is the top-spec variant within its range, and it shows. The cabin feels properly upmarket, from the soft suede and dark red/black leather inserts on the doors, flanking the fascia and along the middle of the dash. The leather/suede seats are also well bolstered, though have manual adjustment and are a touch short in the base.

You also get faux carbon-fibre plastics scattered about, and brushed aluminium highlights on the doors and ventilation controls throughout. The glossy black bits around the gearstick and vents round out the picture, making the whole thing both cohesive and classy, though a little austere. The fit and finish and build quality is predictably high end.

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Pictured: Mazda CX-3 Akari. 

The Fiat’s seats are finished in cool checkered cloth and sport wild red faux leather near the shoulders and on the rather hard, round headrests. You can option up electric leather seats for $2500 on the Pop Star, but we wouldn’t.

The dash and doors are soft to touch, while there are some nice contrasting plastics throughout that team with the retro buttons to give the dash a chic look. That said, the trims feel a half-step below the Mazda, ditto the tactility of the buttons.

Rather interestingly, the 500X actually has a cigarette lighter — something rarely seen on modern cars.

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Pictured: Fiat 500X Pop Star. 

The Mazda CX-3’s ergonomics are also excellent, led by a chunky steering wheel with easy to use buttons and sporting instruments with a central tacho/speedo flanked by two information screens. The head-up display’s green graphics and pop-up glass front are a little low rent, but it’s still a welcome touch.

The Fiat’s steering wheel is gorgeous to behold, with an unusual button layout that you get used to after a while. You also get a nice, retro (that word again) set of instruments with TFT screens and digital speedo, though I kept hitting my knee on the driver’s door handle and there’s no HUD, if that’s your thing.

The CX-3’s infotainment is covered by Mazda’s MZD Connect system, which pairs a small tablet perched atop the dash (this look isn’t to all tastes) that can be controlled by a toggle on the transmission tunnel, which offers shortcuts to media, navigation and your home screen. We’ve had glitches with this system previously, but our test CX-3 worked perfectly.

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Pictured: Mazda CX-3 (top), Fiat 500X (below). 

The Fiat’s UConnect system has a 6.5-inch screen — half-an-inch smaller than the Mazda’s — but its more nicely integrated into the dash and, while its a touchscreen only, it’s simple to operate and has myriad shortcuts. One gripe is that the Bluetooth audio was a little slow to re-pair (about 60 seconds at times).

If there’s a notable weakness for the Mazda up front, it’s the lack of cabin storage, which echoes the closely related Mazda 2. You get a nice phone holder under the ventilation dials (next to two USB points) and door bottle holders, but there’s no closing centre control (and no arm rest) and a pretty small glovebox.

The Fiat 500X wins in this area, because its has two closing gloveboxes, a deep closing centre control that doubles as an armrest, bigger bottle holders in the doors and a deep cubby ahead of the gear shifter (which its below the single USB point, flanked by auxiliary and SD slots).

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Both cars are fitted with six-speaker sound systems, with the Fiat’s sounding a little crisper. Stepping up to the $38K 500X Lounge grade gets you a BeatsAudio system with a subwoofer and eight speakers, if you need some Dr Dre in your life.

To the back seats. In short, if you want a small SUV with the absolute maximum rear seat space, go and buy a Honda HR-V, Holden Trax or Suzuki Vitara.

Dimensionally, these two are evenly matched and smaller than many ‘rivals’. The Mazda is a smidgen longer (4275mm versus the Fiat’s 4248mm), while the 500X is a touch wider (1796mm versus 1765mm) and taller (1600mm versus 1550mm). The wheelbases, at 2570mm, are identical. But it’s the Fiat that is a little better in the back seat.

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Pictured: Mazda CX-3 (top), Fiat 500X (below). 

The Mazda CX-3’s legroom, shoulder room and headroom are all limited, much smaller than something like a Corolla. The side windows are small and steeply raked a well, which can inhibit outward visibility.

The Fiat’s rear space is better across all measures (the lack of a sunroof, which once again you can option in for $2000) helps headroom, though toe room is very tight. You could seat two adults or shorter trips more easily in there. The seats are also flat but comfortable.

The 500X gets two map pockets compared to the Mazda’s one, and bigger side windows that help visibility, though the fat C-pillar sits where there’s a third side window in the Mazda. The plastics throughout are a touch lower grade than the Mazda’s.

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Both test cars get outboard ISOFIX anchors, and both are still excellent options if you’re only carting about smaller kids. Neither have rear vents, but the small cabins render this largely irrelevant.

The CX-3 cargo area is also notably smaller than rivals’, at a rather poxy 264 litres. You get a two-tiered loading floor, a space-saver spare wheel and 60:40 flat-folding seats that liberates 1164L total. But this is just a slightly taller city hatch, rather than a properly capacious utility vehicle.

The Fiat’s cargo space is more respectable, at 346L. You once again make do with a space-saver spare, while the seats again also flip down 60:40 to yield 1545L. There’s no two-tiered load floor like the Mazda’s setup.

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Engine and transmission

Powering the Mazda CX-3 is the company’s familiar high-compression SkyActiv naturally aspirated 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, familiar to large degree from the Mazda 3. Power measures 109kW at 6000rpm while torque tops out at 192Nm from 2800rpm.

Under the bonnet of the Fiat 500X is the company’s 1.4-litre MultiAir petrol engine with a turbocharger. Power is cited as 103kW at 5000rpm. Typical of this sort of engine, you get high torque levels — a very decent 230Nm from a low 1750rpm.

Both cars also use six-speed automatic transmissions, though the Mazda’s unit is a regular old slushbox with a torque converter, while the Fiat’s is a dual-clutch unit with paddles. 

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The Mazda’s engine is typical of the SkyActiv breed — raucous at idle (not necessarily in a good way) but eager and peppy right off the mark, stronger than you’d think through the mid-range and happy to rev out, especially in the transmission’s sport mode.

The gearbox is a great match, with barely a hint of hesitation or lag, and a generally decisive demeanour. Essentially, this is a drivetrain you hardly notice around town, and which can provide some small amount of fun if you ask it.

The Fiat’s little engine has the typical small turbo characteristics: there’s some lag off the mark or from a low rolling speed, but it works up to a stronger mid-range courtesy of that extra torque.

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The dual-clutch gearbox has the standard traits, in that it can be a little hesitant at low speeds and is prone to causing minor driveline shudders, though 95 per cent of the time this is very well controlled. It’s actually one of the better DCTs we’ve driven in this area.

None of this really represents anything especially bad about Fiat, either — it’s just the nature of this sort of gearbox, be its Volkswagen’s DSG or Ford’s Powershift. All require familiarity.

Both the Mazda and Fiat get sports modes (a button on the former, a dial on the latter) that tells the gearbox to hold lower gears. The Fiat’s steering also adds steering resistance and changes the ESC’s parameters.

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Given the two benefits of a dual-clutch are quicker shifts in high performance driving and better fuel economy potential, and given these vehicle are not performance cars, it stands to reason the Fiat should at least be better on fuel.

Both of the these vehicles proved exceptionally frugal on our combined urban and highway legs. The CX-3 almost matched its factory claim with a yield of 6.4 litres per 100km, while the Fiat missed its one by about 20 per cent, but still returned a good-ish 6.7L/100km.

The Mazda’s bonus is the fact it runs of 91 RON fuel or even E10, while the Fiat wants premium.

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Pictured: Fiat 500X. 

Our 0-100km/h sprint times were close, with the Mazda tipping the low 9s and the Fiat a few tenths slower, due in part to its comparative lack of decisiveness right off the mark — partly turbo-related, partly transmission related.

There’s also the fact that at 1200kg dry, the Mazda is quite the featherweight. It’s a sizeable 95kg lighter than the Fiat, which needs that extra torque to ferry that extra weight.

As a city companion, the Mazda’s drivetrain — with its more linear and immediately responsive throttle and predictable gearbox,  as well as its taste for cheaper fuel — makes it the pick.

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Ride and handling

Both of these cars can be quite fun to punt around on a winding road, in particular the Mazda, with its direct (though feel-free) electric assisted steering that loads up better than the Fiat’s, and hatch-like body control. The Mazda sits flatter in the corners and turns-in better than the 500X, if you care.

Of course, the name of the game here is urban dynamics. In typical Mazda style, the CX-3 errs towards a firm ride, and the cabin at speed isn’t short on tyre noise. The 18-inch alloy wheels look fantastic but the lower-profile tyres mean you don’t get as much insulation from road imperfections.

The Fiat on its 17s feel a little better at rounding off urban corrugations, but it also feels a little oversprung, because it can get fidgety at times. It never quite feels settled. On our highway noise test, it was a few decibels quieter than the Mazda.

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Both cars are a doddle to park, though neither have the best all-round outward visibility (the Fiat fares marginally better). Each has super light steering (the 500X’s in particular), though the Mazda’s turning circle is better.

It’s the aforementioned fidgetiness that means the Fiat is again shaded by the Mazda, which is typically firm but not uncomfortable. That said, the 500X is a more pleasant highway cruiser given its quietude. If you want to tackle some corners, both are decent, but it’s the CX-3 that wins again. Zoom zoom indeed.

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Ownership proposition

The Mazda comes with a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and lifetime capped price servicing. Intervals are 10,000km. You can also buy roadside assistance for $68.10 per year, or a premium version for $83.50.

Fiat Australia offers a three-year/150,000km warranty, and has servicing intervals of 12 months or 15,000km. You get 24/7 roadside assistance over the warranty term. There’s no capped-price servicing scheme.

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Verdict

The question we wanted answered here was whether the Fiat 500X was a worthy rival, and the answer is a welcome ‘yes’. It’s got the brand’s typical style nailed, but it also has a resolved cabin design, still has decent equipment for the money and is the more practical offering here.

If you simply must buy European, it’s a worthy contender to a Renault Captur, Peugeot 2008 and Mini Countryman. Feel no compunction taking a test drive. Plus your neighbours are bound to be curious — mine were.

But it should come as no surprise that it’s the Mazda that wins here, though you need to be aware that its cargo and cabin space is definitively poor for the class. In every sense, it’s a car for couples or young families, not the practically minded.

But next to the Fiat 500X Pop Star, the Mazda CX-3 Akari is better equipped for the money, sports a more upmarket cabin and is the better drive. It’s very easy to understand the car’s popularity.



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