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First drive: Fiat keeps it all in the family with 500X

Family affair: Fiat 500X takes the right cues from its baby brother but it is a different beast to drive.

The crossover market is a tough battleground, but Fiat's 500X comes well prepared


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20 Mar 2015


WHEREVER you turn in Turin, you are left in no doubt as to which car-maker calls the Northern Italian city home.

From 30-year-old Bravas, every variety of oddball van you can name and a million variants of the 500, Turin and Fiat go hand in hand.

Fiat’s original factory still stands, now in the financial district. Even the rooftop shakedown track still exists, made famous by the 1960s film The Italian Job.

Fiat’s resurgence over the last decade has been largely led by one product the reborn 500. The cheap and cheerful little runabout brings a sense of fun and frivolity back into what can be a very earnest and serious business.

Fiat has decided to leverage that popularity for its latest great hope the 500X. Designed around a new platform that – somewhat controversially – it will share with Jeep’s new Renegade, the 500X is unashamedly related by design to its little brother.

From the body-coloured dash panels to its bulbous lamps and soft curves, the 500X is meant to appeal to everyone.

Fiat is taking it seriously, too. It claims to have logged over 2.5 million hours of engineering time, 500,000 hours of bench-testing time and 5 million kilometres of on-road testing during the car’s two-year development cycle.

Its Malfi plant has been drastically upgraded to cope with the twin 500X/Renegade lines, and it is targeting the American market like it never has before.

Fiat won’t have it all its own way in the compact-SUV market, however, particularly in Australia, where the sector is recording stratospheric growth. Some dozen real rivals already exist in the domestic market, with more to come.

The numbers tell the story the compact-SUV segment of the Australian market jumped 16.5 per cent in 2014 to register more than 87,000 sales, and leapt a massive 34.8 per cent in the first two months of 2015 compared with the corresponding months last year.

The waters are a little muddied – a few cars play right across the boundary of the small and medium SUV sectors – but there’s no doubt that the category is by far the strongest-growing in the Australian automotive retail sector.

Multiple sales strategies are playing out across the sector, too Mazda has just thrown down the gauntlet by introducing 14 variants – including a $19,990 (plus on-road costs) version – of its new CX-3, while brands like Renault have stacked the specification deck heavily on a tighter line-up with its new Captur, which starts at $22,990, plus on-road costs.

Old stagers like Ford (EcoSport), Mitsubishi (ASX) and Holden (Trax) have also established their place in the pecking order, and won’t be relinquishing share without a fight.

Pricing on the four-strong 500X range has not been released yet, but the latest crop of entrants into the space will have spreadsheets in meltdown as FCA works the numbers before the car’s local launch in the third quarter.

Briefly, the front-wheel drive entry level Pop will run a 103kW/230kW 1.4-litre petrol four-potter, matched to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. A driver’s side knee airbag is a safety highlight, along with front/rear curtain and seat-mounted front bags.

A leather steering wheel, touchscreen audio, six-speaker stereo, rear parking sensors and cruise control are some of the spec highlights. Outside, 16-inch alloys and a rear spoiler are also standard.

The Pop Star gains automatic lights and wipers, a 6.5-inch colour touchscreen infotainment system, keyless entry and 17-inch alloys. It gets the same powertrain as the Pop, but a manual is not offered.

It also adds the Mood Selector dial which allows Sport, Auto or All Weather driving modes to be selected, adjusting the throttle, shift points, brake and steering feel.

Step into the all-wheel-drive Lounge, and not only does the 1.4-litre petrol engine gain 22kW more power, but Chrysler’s nine-speed automatic transmission comes standard. A Beats Audio system complements the infotainment display, while the dash scores a 3.5-inch colour screen in the centre of the binnacle. Dual-zone air-conditioning is also fitted.

The range-topping Cross Plus adds HID lights, a bodykit, new 18-inch rims, the Beats Audio system and roof rails.

Our brief Italian fling with the 500X didn’t take in any of the four variants that will be sold locally – we sampled European-spec-only base petrol and diesel manual variants – but it did reveal a car that’s more than ready to join the most ferocious sales war seen locally for years.

The 500X doesn’t immediately conjure up visions of the 500, but its simple, friendly visage is neither too macho nor too feminine. Its wide-eye headlights and tail-lights pay homage to its tiny brethren, while the plastic overfenders and sills give it the de rigour soft-roader look.

Stepping inside, and the body-coloured plastic capping on the dash is a distinct effort to link the 500s together. Does it work? It will really depend on the exterior colour.

Plenty of storage nooks and crannies – courtesy of the ‘sell in the US’ brief – reveal themselves, including twin gloveboxes, while the controls themselves are contemporary and of good quality at first blush.

Rear head and legroom is sufficient for larger adults, although obviously much more suited to younger passengers. Tilt-and-tumble seats add volume and flexibility, but ingress into the rear is a touch tight, thanks to the smallish rear doors.

Its road manners are excellent, with great forward visibility and an airy cabin space. Fiat claims to have worked hard on improving NVH intrusion, and it appears to have paid off the 500X is quiet and calm, even at high autostrada speeds, with little wind rustling and road noise filtering into the cabin.

Its electric steering is light and a little bit artificial in feel, but it does the job on Italian back roads. The ride is firmer than expected, but not overly so, while the clutch and gearbox action on the six-speed manual we tested is more than adequate.

Fiat has relatively modest ambitions for its 500X, and much will depend on price. It's not the only element, however – the Fiat’s unique and engaging personality will win it many fans right off the bat.

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