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First drive: 2016 Fiat 500X [Review]

We sample Fiat\'s take on the compact crossover.

Like a typical young family, Fiat is still adding to its brood. Just four years removed from its U.S. relaunch with a single model — the 500 city car — Fiat's lineup has grown to include the larger 500L, and another bundle of joy will soon be arriving in the form of the 500X compact crossover.

Although the stork, er, container ship carrying the first batch of U.S.-bound 500Xes is still making its way over from Italy, Fiat invited us to Southern California to try out the brand's first utility vehicle in pre-production form. So will the 500X be an overachiever for Fiat, or a problem child? Come with us as we find out.

Compact gold rushIt seems like every few years there's an automotive "boom” in a particular segment, and 2015 is officially the year of the compact crossover. Following the lead of vehicles like the Buick Encore and Nissan Juke, Chevrolet, Honda, Mazda and even Jeep are now throwing their hats into the ring with pint-sized utility offerings of their own.

That's quite the crowd, but Fiat believes the 500X can stand out from that growing bunch thanks to its distinctive styling and up-scale amenities. As Fiat puts it, it wants the 500X to appeal to the masses without going mainstream.

Based on exterior styling alone, the 500X should garner plenty of interest in the crowded compact crossover segment. Designed by teams in Italy and America, the 500X manages to meld European styling with American bruteness, especially in toughened-up Trekking and Trekking Plus guises.

As seen on our tester, the Trekking trim level adds a unique lower front fascia intended to give the 500X a more off-roady look. However, Fiat admits that even in Trekking form, the 500X's optional all-wheel drive system is meant for on-road confidence rather than backwoods exploring.

Pulling design cues from the Cinquecento, the upper half of the 500X's mug features dual lights on both sides and a big Fiat badge in the center, complete with the brand's signature "whiskers.” A hood with a pronounced center budge gives the 500X an added dose of muscle.

In profile the 500X is more small hatchback than typical SUV, with a sloping roofline flowing into steeply-raked C-pillars. Regardless of trim, every 500X ships with dark plastic cladding around the vehicle's wheel arches and sills.

Around back the 500X is essentially a 500 on steroids, with oversized taillights, chrome license plate shroud and hatch-mounted spoiler dominating the landscape. Again, Trekking models get an added bit of cladding at the bottom of the fascia.

To our eyes the 500X is the best looking model in Fiat's U.S. lineup. The 500 is certainly stylish, but it comes across as a little too tall for its wheelbase, no doubt the result of designers trying to keep true to the original while still satisfying modern demands. And the Fiat 500L is just a little too cartoonish. With the 500X, every design cue just seems to be in balance.

Italian innardsDespite sharing its basic architecture with the Jeep Renegade, the 500X's cabin is strictly Italian with a clear family ties to the 500.

Take the driver's seat in the 500X and you'll be greeted by an oversized Fiat badge sitting in the center of a chunky steering wheel. That wheel features an array of buttons to control radio, Bluetooth and cruise control functions, but we did notice a couple of features missing. Most drivers probably won't mind the 500X's lack of steering wheel paddle shifters, but that seems like an odd omission in a vehicle with sporting pretensions. You might have also noticed three blanks on the right side of the wheel — in Europe and other global markets the 500X is available with adaptive cruise control, but for cost reasons, we don't get ACC in the U.S., so switch blanks it is.

Nestled behind the wheel is a three-pod gauge cluster that is frustratingly Italian. The speedometer is small and set off to the left while rarely used gauges like fuel and temperature get a spot at center stage. Even more confusing, the center color screen defaults to a "power” gauge any time the 500X's Sport mode is engaged. In addition to being of little practical use (if the 500X isn't even worthy of paddle shifters, does it really need a meter to keep tabs on what percentage of engine power is being used?), the power gauge replaces whatever screen you were previously using. In our case, it replaced the trip screen that we were using for navigating the next turn.

It should be noted that pressing the up button on the steering wheel reverts to the previous screen, but do you really want to have to do that every time you're feeling a bit sporty?

Luckily things get better the more you look around. A high-mounted 6.5-inch touchscreen (a 5.0-inch unit is standard on lesser models) running Chrysler's excellent Uconnect system handles all entertainment and navigation duties in a simple, easy-to-use manner. The reach from the driver's seat to the screen is a bit of a stretch, but voice controls worked well during our testing, so that's always an option.

HVAC controls are closer to an arm's reach and use chunky dials that are easy to operate. Just below are switches for the 500X's heated seats and steering wheel, as well as Aux and USB ports for the infotainment system.

The dash itself is a nice design with a three-dimensional take on the 500's center insert. On our Trekking model, that insert was covered in a stone-like finish, but models from the Street line get a more typical painted finish. The tops of the dash and front doors are covered in a soft-touch material, but back seat passengers are forced to make do with hard plastics. However, rear seat occupants can at least get some sunlight thanks to an optional rear moonroof.

The interior of our tester was finished in a beautiful Testa Di Moro leather (dark brown for those that don't speak Italian) with contrasting piping. Seldom seen in the lower end of the automotive spectrum, the dark brown hides really lift the 500X's cabin and give the crossover an air of up-scale Italian style. Round headrests also boost the 500X's aesthetic appeal.

Space is surprisingly abundant in the 500X's front two seats with plenty of head, hip and legroom. Our only really complaint on the comfort front was door-mounted armrests that were just too far forward and outward to comfortably rest your arm on, which is kind of the point of an armrest.

Rear seat room is tight, with head and legroom likely to be an issue for anyone much over six-feet tall. Two adults can fit back there, but not for long periods of time. It might be a stretch to call the 500X a family vehicle.

Engine room and moreThe entry-level 500X Pop uses a 1.4L MultiAir Turbo engine rated at 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. However, don't expect to see many 1.4s on dealer lots as Fiat predicts the bare-bones model will only account for a small portion of overall sales. The Pop could be the enthusiast's model of choice, however, as it is the only version of the 500X available with a six-speed manual transmission.

The vast majority of 500Xes will ship with a 2.4L Tigershark MultiAir2 four-cylinder engine tuned to deliver 180 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque. The Tigershark is paired exclusively with a nine-speed automatic transmission. As mentioned before, the 2.4L can be fitted with AWD, but the 1.4L is limited to front-wheel drive only.

Up front the 500X uses McPherson struts and coil springs while the rear of the car uses an independent kit — a first for Fiat in the United States. The driveshaft to the rear axle on AWD drive models automatically disconnects when not needed for improved fuel economy.

While we weren't able to sample the 1.4L version of the 500X, we got plenty of seat time with a 2.4L-equipped AWD model. Although not a powerhouse, the 2.4L delivers snappy acceleration thanks to the 500X's light 3,000 pound curb weight. The 500X's suspension was stiffer than we expected, which could be a problem for the urban dwellers Fiat covets. However, once you leave the pot-holed streets of the big city and find an empty backroad, that sport-tuning starts to make some sense. Body lean is minimal and well-weighted steering only prods you to push the 500X harder. You won't soon confuse the 500X for an Abarth, but it makes for an entertaining drive. The 500X, which is actually five-inches shorter than the 500L, also feels right-sized no matter the environment.

The 500X's nine-speed auto does a fine job of routing power during normal driving, but that's not to say it's completely without fault. A few times during city driving we noticed a slight hesitation when moving from a standstill, similar to the sensation you'd typically associate with a dual-clutch transmission. The nine-speed also didn't cope well with some mountain passes, with the gearbox droning on in fourth gear for what seemed like an eternity before finally shifting into fifth. That routine went on for a couple of miles.

Flipping the 500X to Sport mode yields sharper throttle response, longer gear holds with faster shifts and tightened steering. That may sound good, but we found it to be a little annoying in practice. Like a kid on a sugar high, the 500X just feels too high-strung in Sport mode, with a hyper-sensitive gas pedal and reluctant-to-shift gearbox combining for a jerky ride. Needless to say, we preferred the 500X's default driving mode, which is plenty responsive.

Thick C-pillars do cut into sight lines, but visibility is good overall in the 500X. For added safety and convenience, the 500X can be outfitted with Blind-spot Monitoring and a LaneSense Departure Warning-Plus system that can steer the car back into its lane. Forward Collision Warning-Plus and Rear Cross Path detection are also on the 500X's option list.

Fiat hasn't announced fuel economy figures for the 500X, but expect the crossover to hit about 30mpg in highway driving.

Leftlane's bottom lineDesigned with slightly more form than function, the Fiat 500X, as Fiat predicts, isn't likely to become a mainstream vehicle any time soon. Buyers concerned with sensibility above all else will probably gravitate more toward vehicles like the Honda HR-V, leaving the 500X for style-conscious buyers that don't mind a few quirks. More importantly for Fiat, the addition of AWD to its lineup should open up the brand to buyers in regions where all-weather traction is important.

2016 Fiat 500X Pop base price, $20,000.2016 Fiat 500X Easy base price, $22,300.2016 Fiat 500X Trekking base price, $23,100.2016 Fiat 500X Lounge base price, $24,850.2016 Fiat 500X Trekking Plus base price, $28,100.All prices exclude a mandatory $900 destination charge.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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