500X: Stepping out in style

The big baby of the 500 family runs with chic styling and a slightly crazy gearbox. So, you know, life is normal ...


For: Head-turning styling, brimming with fun.

Against: Challenging transmission, not the most utilitarian choice.

TEN years ago I went to Italy to drive a Ferrari … and came home fizzing with almost as much enthusiasm about a small Fiat that our host thought we might like to also try out.

I’ve never driven another Ferrari since that 458 Scuderia, but I think I’ve driven every version of the 'Nuovo' 500, from the base Pop to the convertible and the incredibly flamboyant, highly-flavoured Abarth editions.

Fiat has done well with its smile-a-mile rebirth of an original baby family funabout of the 1950s that we Kiwis called the ‘Bambina’.

Where it has become vexed is in respect to how to progress it further. The city car is definitely now ready for a second generation, but there’s so far been no sign of what direction that revised reprisal might take. Same again, or something different?

The 500X here is a different project again. It’s basically Fiat trying to work out if the epochal small car shape works when rendered to a larger scale, though not stupidly so.

The 500X is clearly taller, longer and wider than a 500, but it is still categorised as a compact crossover and thus, like the Mazda CX3 and Toyota C-HR it competes with, does not take up an undue amount of road space. Only in reference to the car with which it shares obvious styling could it be called super-sized and, even then, that descriptive is a bit of a stretch. It’s still relatively cosy inside, for instance.

Even so, it’s an intriguing interpretation; from the front and in profile, it looks more like a grown-up 500 rather than a car that has 500 hallmarks, such as the split headlights and chrome 'moustache' grille, grafted on.

The ‘X’ part of the naming convention is to suggest crossover ability, but any talent for playing in mud belongs to the lifestyle editions with all-wheel-drive that are not represented in this market.

What we get are the Pop and, as tested, the $29,990 Pop Star, two of three front-drive variants that deliver an added ride height and a touch of protective cladding, but flavour for those clients who rarely venture outside of the urban environment.

That makes it just like the Jeep Renegade we drove recently … because … well, underneath it all, it is just like the Jeep Renegade we drove recently.

Same platform and same 103kW/230Nm 1.4-litre turbopetrol engine and six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Same birthplace, too, insofar that American starter model is built in Turin, by Fiat, alongside the 500X.

What’s different, apart of course from the looks, is that the Fiat is around $5000 cheaper and, yet, it is equally as well-specified.

It is also rendered to be a bit more car-like and that makes it a touch more practical, with a bigger boot, more rear leg and head room and a superior driving position.

I had imagined that the 500X would drive much as the Jeep did, but should have known better: Whereas the Jeep has a slightly measured approach, the Fiat simply hasn’t the time. It’s a far more excitable pup; more charismatic, yes, but also a touch more wearying.

The engine is fizzy wee thing; effervescent and eager to rev, if a bit noisy when it is extended, but bigger-hearted than its capacity would suggest. It’s fun to drive and quite economical, too, once you get it settled into the ticking over at around 2500-3500rpm, which is where the meat of the torque is.

There’s a challenge to doing this, though. Automated transmissions are great devices for extracting the best out of small capacity engines, but Fiat’s do tend to be set up for extremes and this one is all the more frantic by being a nine-speed.

That’s a lot of gears for a small engine and what also affects its processes are the driving modes - sport, auto and eco - which appear to translate to ‘full-out Ferrari’, ‘sometimes yes, sometimes no’ and ‘come back after lunch’.

So sport is the one, and it is sporty indeed; the cogs are held long, the changes snappy and, really, it works best if you drive everywhere with your foot flat to the floor. All I’d say is that we’re a long way from Italy and that country’s more relaxed attitude about motorists driving like there’s no tomorrow.

I have to admit to being surprised that Fiat allows it to operate in monster mode right from cold start. But that seems to be how they want it. No matter how much you soft-shoed the transmission refused to upshift at anything less than 3000rpm before releasing with banging abruptness. Call me mechanically over-sensitive, but this seemed an excessive and unnecessarily cruel punishment for the wee thing. But there seems no easy way of avoiding it.

It does become smoother once warmed up and, yes, you can alter the shift pattern with the ‘mood selector’, and also assume control via the paddle shifts, which are the right shape to make it easy to grab a gear just when you need it and provide a more positive engagement, though this takes practice. Hold the gear too long and/or feed the power in too quickly and you can get wheelspin and axle tramp. Just the Italian way, I suppose.

The car’s driving feel is also rather press-on, in that the ride is firm and the steering is very direct. The brakes are strong, too, but you need only wave a foot over the pedal to get retardation. All of which makes it a proper little racer for the school run. Where the barpy exhaust note will also attract attention.

The interior has been well thought out with cubbyholes galore and ample space to take four adults - or five at a squeeze. The rear seating is acceptable, but there is no armrest and the windows don’t go all the way down. The seats will fold 60:40.

The steering wheel is pleasant to hold, and has a huge array of buttons to control audio, cruise and telephony functions, but though the seats are well bolstered and comfy, a feeling that you are sitting 'on' rather than 'in' them leaves impression the driving position is less car than van. The rearward vision is also hampered by the three headrests in the back but, hey, who looks behind, right?

The base Pop has cruise control, rear parking radar and the ubiquitous Fiat-Chrysler Uconnect touch-screen media system. The Pop Star upsizes on the screen dimension and steps up to 17-inch alloys, automatic headlights and wipers, keyless entry, reversing camera, blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert.  The media and Bluetooth set-up is a bit of a challenge, and its functionality is starting to seem a bit dated, too: Some of the touch functions can be a might fiddly when on the move. Also, the volume button is geared to left-hand drive markets so isn’t easy to reach. Even so, it’s not the worst set-up out there by any means.

The 500X has taken its sweet time to reach New Zealand; this model launched internationally three years ago and has been available across the Tasman since 2015.

It says a lot about the car’s personality and styling that, even though the segment it competes in is very congested, there is nothing else quite like the goofy 500X. That doesn’t necessarily make it better than anything else out there, of course. In some ways, it just obviously isn’t.

But if all you want to do is make a statement and be different, then this is definitely the fashionista’s choice.