Car reviews - Fiat - 500X - Pop Star
Interior detailing, refinement, comfort, Uconnect media interface, strong performance
Room for improvement
Expensive for a small SUV, laggy turbo, jerky Sport mode, unsettled ride, divisive design, sticky electric park-brake
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26 May 2016
Price and equipment
THERE are two ways to look at the new Fiat 500X – either as a small SUV with a medium-sized price, or a premium SUV masquerading as a mainstream one.
Clearly the Italians would rather you forget this as a Mazda CX-3 rival, and view it as a cut-price Mini Countryman or Audi Q3 competitor instead.
Kicking off from $28,000 plus on-road costs, the 500X arrived late last year in four variants – base Pop, mid-range Pop Star (as tested here from $33,000), luxo Lounge (from $38K), and off-road-lite Cross Plus (another $1K on top of that).
Each is powered by a 1.4-litre MultiAir turbo-petrol engine, though the latter two also enjoy a 15kW/30Nm output advantage, while the most expensive version eschews front-drive for a part-time all-wheel drive set-up.
Standard fare in the auto-only Pop Star 2WD includes seven airbags, a reversing camera, reverse parking sensors, a blind-spot alert, rear cross-traffic detection, cruise control, a tyre-pressure monitor, stability control with hill-start assist and ‘electronic roll mitigation’, and brake assist, a 6.5-inch touchscreen with the Uconnect multimedia hub, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, voice command, six-speaker audio, a 12V outlet, USB port, auxiliary jack, leather gear knob, a cooled dash compartment, paddle shifters, steering wheel controls, daytime running lights, power windows, auto-dimming mirror, driver’s seat power lumbar adjustment, automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, front foglights, power folding mirrors, keyless entry and start, 17-inch alloy wheels and a space-saver spare tyre.
Autonomous Emergency Braking (dubbed Full Speed Forward Collision Warning Plus in Fiat-speak), is available as an extra-cost option in the Pop Star, though it – along with Lane Departure warning Plus – is standard in the Lounge.
Welcome to Fiat’s best modern interior, starring attractive new instruments, an easy and logical multimedia screen known as Uconnect, an excellent driving position, and seats that hold and support in all the right places.
Throw in heaps of space for four adults and a wafer-thin child – its wheelbase length of 2570mm mirrors the CX-3 but the Italian is both shorter and wider – as well as a reasonably long and wide cargo area (at 346L it smashes the Mazda’s), and you can believe that the cabin must have taken pride of place during this vehicle’s gestation.
Those instruments, by the way, do require some familiarisation, since there are a plethora of screen options for speed, trip computer, navigation, multimedia, and vehicle operation date, but once mastered, they’re just a joy to look at.
Clearly lots of thought has also gone into the lovely steering wheel with its handy fingertip-reach controls, the Pop Star’s rich trim and material detailing, manifold storage solutions (including a secondary glovebox), more than sufficient ventilation and overall feeling of premiumnness.
From Pop Star upwards, the 500X also comes with Fiat’s ridiculously named Mood Selector, which alters the brakes, transmission, engine and steering responses according to default Auto, Sport or All Weather/Traction settings.
Less charming are vision-impeding thick pillars, no rear-seat cupholders, back cushions that lack sufficient thigh support over longer journeys and some rattles over rougher roads.
A few cheap details like the ugly interior door handles also detract from an otherwise carefully considered cabin. But it’s still a comfy, quality, and – most importantly – premium place to be. Certainly a base Audi Q3’s interior is no more opulent.
Engine and transmission
Essentially, the Pop Star 2WD’s 103kW/230Nm 1.4-litre MultiAir four-pot turbo-petrol is a gem, offering plenty of low-down pull and a satisfyingly strong mid-range.
We’ve been fans of this powerplant for years, and it remains one of the Fiat’s best assets. That it is possible to average 5.7L/100km underlines this unit’s efficiency, though some racy manoeuvres and performance testing saw us soar over 10L/100km during one period.
We’re less enamoured with the six-speed DDCT Dual Dry Clutch Transmission, however.
Left in Drive, with no pretensions of sportiness and on flat or level roads, and the engine/gearbox combo works just fine, with smooth and effortless acceleration pretty much across the entire rev spectrum.
Slot the little Drive Select knob into Sport, however, and the DDCT seems agitated, holding on to lower gears far longer than necessary, creating a mechanical cacophony that nobody would appreciate. Additionally, it occasionally seems to shunt between ratios, even at low speeds, making smooth progress near impossible.
Add an incline, or stab the throttle, and the delay moving forward is frustrating, especially if the sticky electronic park-brake has been left on.
This must be released by pushing the toggle down every time (most rivals have an automatic release), adding to the irritation. This setting feels totally ill-calibrated to Australian roads.
So the best solution is to leave it in Auto, modulate your right foot, and try and ride the massive wave of torque that kicks in once the 500X is on the move.
This is most easily done outside of city areas, where the MultiAir’s sheer effortlessness shines brightest.
Ride and handling
In the strictest sense the Fiat’s handling is spot-on for most consumers, thanks to easy steering, exceptional roadholding grip, and very progressive levels of electronic drive-aid intervention subtlety. It is an effortless vehicle to hustle along. And the brakes are superb.
But if you’re a keen driver, the steering’s zero feel and feedback will annoy, even in Sport mode, which only serves to add more dead weight to the helm. The issue here, even if you’re not a racing hero, is that it is impossible to know what the front-end is doing, and on really slippery surfaces, it is possible to overcook the corner.
Or, in other words, this feels like a mediocre SUV – rather than a sporty Italian hatch – so fast corners are met with safe but stodgy understeer (where the car runs wide through a turn), with little in the way of interaction or activity. The Fiat is a set-and-forget handler designed to be as benign as possible.
All that would be acceptable if the expected soft and supple ride materialised.
Instead, the ride never feels settled, pitching annoyingly on anything other than smooth bumps. Tetchy suspension combined with cold and rubbery dynamics is a recipe for disappointment. Tyres are sized at 215/55R17.
Also, the turning circle is also too big around town.
Safety and servicing
The 500X is yet to be tested by ANCAP.
Fiat offers a three-year/100,000km warranty, with intervals at 15,000km or 12 months. And while there is no fixed-price servicing, a servicing calculator can work estimate the cost on-line.
The 500X is indeed a convincing premium-ish small SUV, offering smooth-road comfort, a plush and roomy interior, quality fittings (ugly door handles aside), big boot and refined yet rorty 1.4-litre turbo performance. Seen that way, the Fiat is somewhat of a bargain, especially in well-specified Pop Star guise.
However, the ride deteriorates irritatingly on poorer surfaces, the DDCT dual-clutch transmission can be jerky and laggy at times, and the steering seems wooden and artificial – even compared to cheaper rival small SUVs like the CX-3’s.
Still, the 500X has presence, and is likely to please style-seeking social climbers.
Mazda CX-3 Akari 2WD auto from $33,290
Arguably the most pleasing new-gen Mazda this side of the brilliant MX-5, the stylish CX-3 aces almost every aspect of compact SUV life, with the exception of a noticeably vocal engine and limited side vision. A deserved bestseller.
The Akari heaves with standard equipment too.
Suzuki Vitara S-Turbo automatic from $29,990 Driveaway
Suzuki is back and how, with a good looking, nimble, comfortable, dynamic, roomy, versatile, and well-equipped compact SUV. The S-Turbo’s 1.4-litre Booster Jet four-pot turbo is a blast, combining strong performance with exceptional refinement and economy. Watch those front wheels losing traction in the wet, though!Renault Captur Dynamique from $30,000 Driveaway
Full of real design flair inside and out, with great seats, a sporty chassis and long list of standard features, France’s compact SUV contender has been a smash hit worldwide. Its only drawback in Australia is the laggy DCT dual-clutch auto, combined with a rorty little engine that could use a bit more torque.
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