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It’s happened – Fiat has found yet another segment that it thinks can benefit from a variant of the legendary Fiat 500. Into the burgeoning compact SUV segment comes the 2015 Fiat 500X. According to the Italian brand, it no longer sees the 500 as one vehicle, but rather a whole family of cars.
With that in mind, there’s no doubt that this is indeed a 500 despite the addition of two doors and an appreciable dollop of added ride height as well. Fiat says the eyes, smile and moustache are the same so you’ll be left in no doubt it’s a 500. Fiat also claims that this segment is based on three main factors – character, style and equipment. Given the heritage, design and appeal of the basic 500, the 500X variant should be well placed to cash in on some of those factors too.
We don't yet have full pricing and specifications as yet – that will come at the local launch of the vehicle – but you can read our short, indicative specification guide here. To paraphrase that breakdown, we’ll get two engine variants (the same 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine in different states of tune), three transmission options (six-speed manual, six-speed auto and nine-speed auto) and four model grades (Pop, Pop Star, Lounge and Cross Plus) in Australia. There’s something for everyone, it seems.
From the exterior, the two extra doors don’t in any way detract from the appearance of what was originally a diminutive two-door. That’s a surprise, actually. I expected the stretched 500 to look a little strange in the same way the 500L does in Europe. It looks very much in proportion though. Love it or hate it, there’s something undeniably appealing about the retro style of the ‘nouvo 500’ as the Italians call it, and the company would have been ill-advised to dilute that in any way.
Around town and entering the hills outside Turin, the locals seem to love the 500X and I reckon it will have the same appeal locally. One unscheduled coffee stop at a bar in a tiny town – we’re in Italy, it’s the done thing – resulted in a swarm of locals crowding round the car to check out the new model they hadn’t yet seen in the flesh. The 500X impressed the public at the Geneva show, too, so the initial signs are good.
Those aforementioned extra doors come by way of Fiat’s ownership of the Chrysler brand, with the 500X sharing platform architecture with the Jeep Renegade. Read our report from the US launch of that vehicle here.
If you’re buying a 500X – or considering buying one – chances are two things (aside from the retro styling) will be top of your list. You’ll be looking for a ride that soaks up rough surfaces easily enough not to lose composure and you’ll be looking for a second row that is actually usable. The good news is that on both counts the 500X excels.
Italy isn’t renowned for world-leading road surfacing, especially in and around larger towns. Ancient cobblestones add to the mix of potholed streets, raised tram tracks and patchwork resurfacing. The 500X cruises over poor surfaces easily with the cabin remaining comfortable and a pleasing lack of banging and crashing. Despite the comfortable ride around town, the 500X also handles significantly better than we expected on the twisty run out to Fiat’s test track in Balocco.
The front-end grip especially is admirable, the speed sensitive power steering is precise and you never feel unsettled behind the wheel. In fact, I felt comfortable enough to push the 500X harder through the twisty sections of our drive loop than you’d ever want to go with passengers in the car. The brakes deserve a mention here too. The system has exceptional pedal feel and was fade free for us over the duration of our 300km-plus drive.
Next the second row seating. I clambered in behind my own driving position and there was more than enough room for my legs, and I had excess headroom. Another surprise – I didn't expect the 500X to have this much room in the second row. Give or take, there was around 30mm between the top of my scone and the hood lining. I wasn’t sprawled luxuriously by any means and you’d struggle to get three burly blokes across the second row shoulder to shoulder, but there’s more than enough room for two adults in the second row. Conversely, three young children will be able to sit back there quite comfortably. That means families will certainly be able to use the 500X as a run-around, and adults won’t need to be contortionists to get into or out of the second row either.
Our test vehicles in Italy are all the same spec (even the same colour, making video and photography easy for once) and don’t quite mirror what we’ll get locally. For example, the entry level interior trim we’ll get in Australia won’t have heated seats or a heated steering wheel, but strangely the entry level spec we're driving in Italy does. As is generally the case with our local market, the 500X variants that go on sale here will carry significantly more standard equipment than the models we tested in Italy.
We’re driving the low tune version of the engine, too, mated to the six-speed manual gearbox. At 103kW at 5000rpm and 230Nm at 1750rpm, it’s no outright powerhouse but it does get the little Fiat up to speed briskly enough. Around town, I find myself zipping in and out of traffic with the locals with ease.
On the motorway, we crank the 500X up to 185km/h for a lengthy run and the engine allows you to roll along at that speed easily in sixth gear. The gearbox is slick enough, too, with redline-touching upshifts swift enough not to lose momentum, and downshifts around town smooth enough to keep occupants comfortable. You can crawl through traffic without any hesitation or jerkiness as well, strengthening the 500X’s city-car claims even in manual guise. We think most Australian buyers will opt for one of the automatic transmission options, but there's nothing wrong with the manual if you prefer shifting gears yourself.
From the driver’s seat, there are a few noticeable positives to report. Visibility is excellent courtesy of a low-set instrument display, a short snout and sloping bonnet that swoops down toward the road sharply and a seat that can be jacked up appreciably as well as adjusted fore and aft. Peripheral vision is also impressive and maneuvering the 500X through Turin’s congested streets is a breeze. The 500X has lost none of its city car practicality in the shift to compact SUV.
We didn’t test the 500X off-road, but let’s face it, few 500X models will ever see more than a puddle, let alone any serious 4WD action. Despite the appeal of the wide-ranging model spread, we don’t think too many buyers in this segment in Australia will be tempted by the manual gearbox either, despite it’s smooth-shifting abilities. That makes one of the automatic transmissions perhaps the most appealing option and potentially the sweet spot in the range – a call that will be easier to make once Fiat Chrysler Australia nails down local pricing.
We look forward to testing the nine-speed gearbox locally (we didn't get to test it in Italy) – although more isn’t always better and the six-speed auto is certainly worth your consideration if you’re not interested in the manual.
It’s not all sweetness for the 500X despite numerous undeniable positives. There are some serious challenges to be faced once it lands locally. The compact SUV segment is not like the city car segment – especially in Australia. Buyers now look for and expect a premium product, certainly in terms of the materials used in the cabin.
Where the conventional Fiat 500 can get around that fact with charm, individuality and pricing, the 500X won’t get that same latitude. The 500X, while holding on to the retro charm of the 500, isn’t as outwardly premium as some of its direct competition in the cabin. Despite that, the 500X will be by some measure the coolest SUV in its segment and will appeal to anyone wanting to make a statement.
If you have the desire to be a little different and you want to stand out from the crowd, the only other compact SUV that can deliver as succinctly as the 500X is, somewhat ironically, it’s edgy-styled sibling the Jeep Renegade. The 500X isn't just about style either. It's also practical, comfortable and enjoyable to drive. When it lands later this year, the 500X, will definitely make an impact and we look forward to testing it on local roads.