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The Fiat 500X, which hit the market late last year, is an absolutely vital car for the Italian brand’s Australian arm. But is it a match for European rivals such as the Renault Captur and Mini Countryman, and mainstream options including Mazda CX-3 and Nissan Qashqai?
It’s no secret that sales of small crossover SUVs are booming, up another 27 per cent in 2015. These vehicles are drawing buyers up from light cars and down from bigger SUVs and small cars alike, on the basis of their higher ride heights but city friendly proportions.
So it goes without saying that the the retro-cool 500X comes at an opportune time for Fiat. Especially when you consider the company’s sales declined an alarming 31.5 per cent here last year as its 500 and Panda twins struggled (the latter has now been dropped). It dropped another 62.8 per cent in January 2016.
Here we test the mid-point of the promising 500X range. This variant is called, rather twee-ly, the Pop Star. It comes solely with a small 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine, a six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive.
Asking price? $33,000 plus on-road costs, which puts it between the 500X Pop auto ($30,000) and the Lounge with AWD (an overly steep $38,000).
Rivals include anything from the flagship Mazda CX-3 Akari ($33,290) and upper-spec Honda HR-V VTi-L ($32,990), to the base Nissan Qashqai ST ($28,490) or bargain Suzuki Vitara RT-X ($23,990), bisected by the Skoda Yeti Ambition ($29,190), and Renault Captur Dynamique ($30,000), among many, many others.
The Pop Star is also probably the sweet spot of the range, and is worth the extra $3000 over the Pop, given our test car comes standard with niceties such as satellite-navigation, a bigger 6.5-inch screen and 17-inch alloys (instead of 16s).
Additional standard equipment on the Pop Star beyond these features include Bluetooth phone and audio, rain-sensing wipers, push-button start, keyless go, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, cruise control and a reverse-view camera.
The first thing any Fiat has to do is look the part. You don’t buy a little Italian option because you’re Captain Sensible. In the metal, the 500X manages to blend the cute, retro curves of the ‘regular’ 500 with pleasing proportions and a hint of toughness, though those stickers are a little garish. Tick.
Ditto inside the cabin, which is pleasantly sparse just like the 500 and even relatively spacious. The dash and doors are soft to touch, while the contrasting plastics team with the retro buttons to give a chic look.
Everything is well made but not as tactile as some. It’s not exactly Germanic, but it all feels relatively tough and should hold up OK.
The Fiat’s manually adjustable 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.
The Fiat’s steering wheel is chunky and chockers with buttons on both on the front and behind, while there are also retro instruments with digital screens and a digital speedo. Ergonomics inside are top-notch (though I did hot my knee on the driver’s door handle a few times), while the seating position offers a good, raised view of the road.
Fiat’s UConnect system includes a touchscreen well integrated into the dash and simple to operate, with myriad shortcuts. The Bluetooth audio was a little slow to re-pair (about 60 seconds at times), but the sound quality proved excellent — better than most, even.
Cabin storage is good. You get two closing gloveboxes, a deep covered centre control that doubles as an armrest, big 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).
Dimensionally, the 500X is among the smaller cars in its class, alongside the CX-3 and Countryman, at 4248mm long, 1796mm wide, 1600mm tall and sitting on a 2570mm wheelbase.
Rear seat space is actually quite decent, much better than a CX-3 but no match for a Honda HR-V or Suzuki Vitara. There’s sufficient headroom (don’t option the sunroof if this is a priority) and shoulder room for two adults for quick trips. It’s great for kids, with deep side windows and outboard Isofix points.
Cargo space is listed as a decent for the class 346L, about 30L less than a Volkswagen Golf. You make do with a space-saver spare wheel, while the seats flip down 60:40 to yield 1545L — enough for a splurge at Ikea.
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 — 230Nm from a low 1750rpm.
It’s matched to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with paddles, sending torque exclusively to the front wheels.
The engine shows some typical lag and lack of linearity off the mark or from a low rolling speed, but it works up to a stronger mid-range courtesy of that extra torque. It’s something most small turbos display, and the 500X is by no means the worst.
The engine is otherwise un-fussed and quiet, with that good reservoir of torque noticeable once underway. You’ll have no trouble moving the 1300kg-plus weight. We managed fuel consumption of 6.7L/100km,15 per cent more than the factory claim but still excellent — though you need to use 95 RON fuel.
The dual-clutch gearbox has the standard traits, meaning it can occasionally offer hesitancy at low speeds, though 95 per cent of the time any shudders are kept well controlled. It’s actually one of the better DCTs we’ve driven in this area.
Most of the time, the 500X is a pleasant and amenable city companion.
It can also be fun to punt around on a winding road, with good body control, though its wooly steering doesn’t load up much. On the plus side, it’s super light in car parks. Ride noise is good, and higher speed compliance ditto.
The only real gripe is the way it feels a touch over-damped over rougher roads, being a little prone to fidgeting over corrugated surfaces.
From an ownership perspective, 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. Middling.
And so that’s the Fiat 500X Pop Star. It’s not quite the value proposition of a Mazda CX-3, Vitara or Qashqai, and it’s not as practical as a Honda HR-V.
But it’s a relatively accomplished and exceedingly cool left-of-centre option. It’s not the sensible choice, but nor would it be a silly one.
Click the photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.