With an upscale cabin, surefooted handling and a bunch of features packed into a smallish, stylish wrapper, the all-new 2016 Fiat 500X subcompact SUV proves downsizing doesn’t have to mean settling.

I drove a variety of trim levels over city streets and highways, as well as substantial time on winding canyon roads.

Exterior & Styling


You wouldn’t believe how closely the Fiat 500X resembles the even tinier 500 — a two-door subcompact car — unless you saw the graphic Fiat created superimposing one onto the other. It’s surprising how many 500 cues translate to the SUV, yet it’s a cohesive final product. Unlike, say, Fiat’s other un-cute ute, the 500L.

There are 12 available exterior colors on most 500X trim levels and a variety of wheels. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard on most trims and 18s are available or standard on higher trim levels.

Shoppers will have to pay great attention to the trim levels, though, if they like certain styling aspects. Easy and Lounge trims feature chrome door handles and exterior pieces with body-colored dashboard trim inside that’s quite striking. The Trekking and Trekking Plus feature flat-gray door handles and the same flat gray on the dashboard, which makes for a more masculine look.

The array of wheels and the Fiat 500X’s aggressive, wide stance help dilute the “cute” factor a bit, making its look a bit more palatable for a wider audience than the original 500.

How It Drives


Based on the same platform that underpins new Jeep Renegade, the 500X has the same power plants and all-wheel-drive system. The biggest differences are ride height and how the all-wheel drive is tuned. Oh, and the looks: This Fiat looks nothing like it’s Jeep Renegade sibling.

On the road, the Fiat 500X feels like an exceptionally substantial car. The wide track and low center of gravity help give drivers confidence navigating tight turns, like on the canyon roads of California I drove it on. Those turns were more severe than most locals probably deal with day to day, and the 500X carved them better than I expected it could.

The handling stands out, and steering is nice and responsive — though going from one tight turn right into another I wished the steering wheel were a little smaller. My mountain drive was in a front-wheel-drive version of the car, which made its crisp handling even more impressive. The all-wheel-drive system is set up primarily to deliver power to the front wheels.

Overall, the ride was comfortable and the suspension handled road imperfections well. The cabin itself is extremely quiet on various road surfaces. The suspension doesn’t have much travel, though, so when you go over bumps or dips, passengers will feel a definite jolt. The 500X’s comfortable seats help cushion it, but in a car like this, Fiat could have dialed it back for less canyon-carving and more comfort for the majority of daily driving.

Powering most of the 500X lineup is a turbocharged 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder engine teamed with a nine-speed automatic transmission. The entry-level Pop trim comes with a six-speed manual and a less-powerful turbocharged 1.6-liter I-4 cylinder, but the company expects only 5 percent of shoppers to opt for that model.

The 2.4-liter puts out 180 horsepower and 175 pounds-feet of torque — plenty of power for a vehicle this size. While power was plentiful in both the front-wheel-drive model and the all-wheel-drive (AWD) version I tested, the issue is getting that power at the right time through the finicky nine-speed transmission. We’ve noted the same transmission having issues in our long-term Jeep Cherokee, but the issues in the Fiat 500X are much less severe.

In low-speed stop-and-go traffic, my co-driver and I both noted the transmission hunting for the right gear too often. When trying to get up to speed to pass, the transmission takes a bit too long to downshift for my liking.

However, neither the somewhat stiff ride nor the transmission’s temperament will likely be noticed by the majority of shoppers in this class.

There’s also a driving mode selector for Normal, Sport and Traction Plus — to tackle bad weather — standard on all trims with the automatic transmission. Flipping it into Sport means the engine revs higher before shifting, making for a more sporting experience. You’ll notice it when pushing the car, but the fact is most drivers will likely forget the selector is there and leave it in the default Normal mode when driving around town.

I’ve tested competitors like the Chevrolet Trax and Honda HR-V. All three do different things better than the others, but none is perfect. The HR-V is considerably slower than the other two. The 500X rides firmer, while the Trax feels less stable on the road.

Fuel economy for the 2.4-liter with front-wheel drive is 22/31/25 mpg city/highway/combined. All-wheel drive (AWD) drops those numbers to 21/30/24 mpg. The 1.6-liter with a manual transmission gets 25/34/28 mpg. These are decent fuel economy numbers, but the front-wheel-drive HR-V returns an impressive 31 mpg combined fuel economy, which could sway shoppers who prefer efficiency to sportiness.

Interior


The stylish exterior is matched by a well-appointed interior that’s one of the best I’ve seen in this class — or price range.

I spent most of my time in the Trekking model, which sits in the middle of the 500X lineup at a starting price of $24,000, including destination. The materials along the dash, center console, doors and steering wheel are top-notch. The cloth seats in the Trekking were wide and comfortable, with plenty of thigh support.

Available on the Lounge and standard on the Trekking Plus, the rich leather seats are simply stunning to look at and touch. I was a bit astonished that one of the Lounge models I drove rang in near $30,000, but with its level of interior quality and features — along with the available giant panoramic moonroof — the Fiat 500X lives up to that price. The $25,000-or-so Trekking I piloted is probably the sweet spot.

At 5-foot-10 I had plenty of headroom up front; I had no issues in models equipped with the panoramic moonroof, either. The backseat is not so spacious, but my knees didn’t graze the front seat and my head didn’t touch the roof. Larger passengers will probably want to avoid the back for any substantial length of time.

Ergonomics & Electronics


The entire Fiat Chrysler Automobiles company should be applauded for how simple it’s keeping its tech. The 500X features a smaller version of the UConnect system we’ve grown fond of in other products, and it’s just as easy to use here.

The base Pop model comes with a standard stereo that’s lacking a touch-screen. Move up to the Easy or Trekking and you get a 5-inch touch-screen with Bluetooth, a USB port and satellite radio. Lounge and Trekking Plus models get a 6.5-inch touch-screen and add a navigation system.

While all the Fiat 500X’s features work well, I was a bit shocked by how poor the stereos sounded in both the Trekking — with its six-speaker system — and a model with the optional Beats Audio with eight speakers and a subwoofer. Both sound tinny and underpowered, with no warmth. You’d think upgrading to the more expensive Beats system — a brand known for heavy bass — would be … well, an upgrade. But there’s very little bass to be had with the Beats system. I would definitely not recommend that option; many music lovers might be completely turned off.

Cargo & Storage


The little 500X surprised me again with its cargo area. At 18.5 cubic feet, it’s nearly identical to the Chevy Trax, at 18.7, but isn’t as roomy as an all-wheel-drive HR-V, which has 23.2 cubic feet.

I don’t think many shoppers will expect more from a vehicle this size, however. The rear seats fold relatively flat and expand the cargo volume to 50.8 cubic feet. The Trax comes in at 48.4 cubic feet with the rear seats down, while the HR-V with all-wheel drive (AWD) has 55.9 cubic feet (front-wheel-drive HR-Vs have 24.3 and 58.8 cubic feet, respectively). The 500X has plenty of room for large and tall items, too. You can compare the three here.

A cargo shelf in the Fiat 500X can be lowered to add more height if needed, or just to create a well to better hold items that tend to roll around, like groceries.

Safety


The Fiat 500X had not yet been crash-tested as of publication. When available, results will appear here.

A big push here for Fiat is to pack advanced safety technology into this small SUV. Safety features like blind spot monitoring and parking assist sensors are optional on most trims, but more advanced features like rear cross-path detection, forward collision warning and lane departure warning are available only on top trims as part of an expensive package totaling $5,350.

Value in Its Class


The Fiat 500X has a lot going for it in terms of styling, quality materials and loads of available technology, but that comes at a price. The Fiat costs more money in general than its current competitors with similar features, until you get to the top trim levels, where the playing field levels out.

Send David an email