The Fiat 500X competes in a burgeoning segment of micro-sized SUVs, most of which we tested for our Subcompact SUV Challenge in late 2015. The 500X joined the party for the 2016 model year. For 2017, Fiat slimmed its trim levels from five to three — in ascending order, Pop, Trekking and Lounge models — all with front- or all-wheel drive (see them side by side here and see all the 2017 changes here).

Though the 500X technically offers two engines and transmissions, the turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder (160 horsepower, 184 pounds-feet of torque) can only be had with a six-speed manual and front-wheel drive in the Pop trim level. Most variations, including the Fiat 500x Urbana Edition, have a 2.4-liter four-cylinder (180 hp, 175 pounds-feet of torque) and nine-speed automatic transmission. That’s the combination we tested in an AWD 500X Pop.

Fun Vs. Fuss

Handling is a clear strength for this Fiat, with quick-ratio steering and Mini-like agility. You can throw the new Fiat 500X around; body roll is minimal, and our test car’s Nexen all-season tires — hardly a brand known for grip — mask understeer improbably well. As subcompacts go, the 500X has a degree of nimbleness that sets it apart., especially with the all-wheel-drive option.

Mid-corner bumps cause some wheel hop, and the Fiat’s suspension chucks you around a lot over rapid dips and rises in the pavement. That’s an inevitable outcome for any car with just 101.2 inches between the axles, but I found overall shock absorption livable for this class — comfortable, even. Another editor characterized it as firm, however, so decide for yourself.

The Fiat 500X’s four-cylinder musters adequate power in most situations, with a degree of low-end grunt that’s often absent from subcompact SUVs and even cars. Still, one editor observed that the 9-speed automatic upshifts too quickly for the engine to hit its sweet spot at higher revs. A Sport mode curbs the latter tendency by holding lower gears longer, but the 9-speed transmission needs work. Some downshifts are unobtrusive, but others kick up engine revs for a full second before finally banging into a lower gear. It’s better overall than other nine-speeds we’ve experienced from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, but it’s a blemish all the same in the 500X.

The Pop manual with the 1.4-liter engine is the most efficient Fiat 500X, with an EPA fuel economy rating of 28 mpg combined versus an underwhelming 24-25 mpg fuel economy for the 2.4-liter engine. But that comes with a caveat: The 1.4-liter wants premium gas for full power while the 2.4-liter makes its maximum output on the cheap stuff.

The Inside

Like many peers, the Fiat 500X’s driving position is more akin to a tall hatchback than to an SUV. Inventive styling and decent materials spruce up the cabin — at least in a class rife with low-budget interiors.

It’s still, well, small. The low center console leaves room for front occupants to stretch out, but even average-sized drivers may find the seat cushions undersized. The rear seat is tight on legroom for adults and the clearance you’d need for rear-facing child-safety seats (see our Car Seat Check for a full evaluation). If you plan to schlep either one in back, consider the Honda HR-V or Subaru Crosstrek.

Cargo volume measures 14.1 cubic feet behind the rear seats and 39.8 cubic feet with the seats folded — small for the class, especially compared to alternatives like the HR-V. But the cabin has an array of nooks to store small items. Fiat 500x Lounge and Trekking editions have a dual-level cargo floor that lets you maximize storage height or maintain a flat floor with the folded seats. All versions have a fold-flat front passenger seat to accommodate long, narrow cargo.

What You Get

For its starting price — roughly $21,000 — the Fiat 500X comes reasonably equipped, save its multimedia setup. Steering wheel audio controls and a USB port are standard, but the base setup has an old-school line display and no Bluetooth or backup camera. Five- and 6.5-inch touchscreens are optional, as are HD radio, a camera, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, and a second USB port.

The low center console leaves room to stretch out up front, but even average-sized drivers may find the seat cushions undersized.

Questions Remain

Eighteen months ago, a 2016 Fiat 500X placed second in’s seven-model Subcompact SUV Challenge. It might fare similarly today, but the class at large remains questionable. If you can do with a lower driving position, similar money buys a bigger hatch — think Volkswagen Golf or hatchback versions of the Honda Civic or Chevrolet Cruze. Any of those are better choices for practicality and overall refinement than the Fiat. If you need the AWD and ride height of an SUV, a little more money can get you a larger compact model instead of a subcompact one — and similar money can buy a lightly used compact. Again, better choices.

It’s little wonder the sales trajectory for subcompact SUVs has fallen back to earth as the rush of automakers entering the field has slowed. It’s a head-scratcher of a group, and only its best deserve a look. The Fiat 500X has charm and strong crash-test ratings. But those strengths alone don’t make it a must-drive, and shoppers should take note of reliability concerns that plague the Fiat brand.