2016 Fiat 500X first-drive - America's grown-up Italian

If the Fiat 500 is an icon reborn, then why wouldn't people want even more of an icon on their driveway? That's the question the 2016 Fiat 500X arrives to address, slotting with Italian panache into the fashionable urban crossover segment. As the little-loved 500L demonstrated, however, there's more to taking a popular city car and breaking it free of its urban runabout roots than simply enlarging it, but Fiat believes it has some secret weapons there, too.

Now before we go on, I should confess some biases. I've got a soft spot for Fiat and for the 500 in particular, partly as a European living in North America, but mainly because my parents owned not only two original 500's, but a string of different models from the Italian marque while I was growing up.

Lest you think Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is going to get a pass no matter what the 500X is like, however, there's a flip side: I'm generally not convinced by riffs off design classics. The reborn 500, like BMW's MINI, may do a fair job of distilling the appeal of their respective originals for the 21st century, but the umpteen derivations that follow seldom seem to possess the same charm.

The generous might describe the 500X as having a chunkier take on the 500's style. Those less taken with the swollen fenders, bulkier hood, and plumper rear might say it's an over-stung 500 after a run-in with some bees.

"The 500X is like a 500 that has been pumping iron in the gym," is how Danilo Tosetti, senior designer, would prefer you think of it. So, at the front you get all the familiar cues from the two-door, like the protruding nose, clamshell hood, and double-bubble headlamps, only drawn larger on the 500X's snout. Fiat actually has two design options on offer, with $22,300 Easy and $24,850 Lounge trim getting a more fared-in look, while $23,100 Trekking and $27,100 Trekking Plus ramp up some of the SUV cues with things like beefier bumper moldings.

From the side, the rear roofline has the same pushed-forward slope as the smaller car, and the prominent shoulder line runs all the way around, just as on the 500. The arches are bigger and get mud-friendly plastic trim, though, as do the lower edges of the doors, themselves more contoured.

At the back, the silver-rimmed taillamps have a little of the Rolls-Royce Wraith about them, but the stacked silhouette is all Fiat. It's Fiat drawn with a bolder hand, however, and the result is a car that loses some of the cutesy charm of the 500.

Then again, perhaps cute isn't quite what Fiat needs. Though the 500 remains the "icon" of the brand, the 500X will be its "halo", the first designed with North American tastes in mind from the outset. At several points, Fiat execs told me FCA wasn't chasing mass-market sales, but there's nonetheless a belief internally that the 500X occupies a sweet-spot for American drivers.

Unlike their European counterparts, who will get a multitude of engine and transmission options, US showrooms will offer just two. Cheapest will be a 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo mated to a six-speed manual transmission, good for 160 HP and 184 lb-ft of torque.

The majority of US buyers are expected to opt for the 2.4-liter Tigershark MultiAir2 engine, with 180 HP and 175 lb-ft of torque. It uses a 9-speed automatic transmission and, unlike the 1.4L, will be offered not only in FWD but AWD form, too.

It's easy to laugh at "soft-roaders" – more likely to tackle the curb in the Walmart parking lot than any trail – but at least the 500X has a little rugged heritage under the metal. Sharing the same core architecture as the new Jeep Renegade, it's available with optional All-Wheel Drive with a disconnecting rear axle, though has been tuned for road use. Compared to its Jeep-brand sibling, it has different suspension geometry at the rear, while the turn-in is sharper at the front.

Overall, though, the 500X's flavor of AWD is intended for increased on-road confidence, Fiat says, with the ability to switch into front-wheel drive most of the time for improved economy. Around 40-percent of 500X orders are expected to have AWD, a $1,900 extra, with those models sitting roughly an inch higher than their FWD counterparts.

Of the two engines/transmission pairings, the 1.4L feels less refined. Offered only on the entry-level $20,000 Pop trim, it doesn't feel noticeably underpowered compared to its larger counterpart, but it has a tendency to sound raucous – and not in a race car way – when pushed. The gearbox, meanwhile, could hardly be described as snappy, and while Fiat has shown it can do a manual transmission right with its 500 Abarth, the somewhat anodyne throw of the shifter in the 500X is nowhere near as responsive.

Better, then, to look to the 2.4L – as Fiat expects 95-percent of buyers to – where the power comes with less aural racket. You also get Fiat's Dynamic Selector system to play with: a knob in the center console, down by the electronic parking brake, which switches the 500X between Auto, Sport, and Traction+ modes depending on road conditions.

In Auto, the default, the car balances smooth driving with minimal emissions. The electric power steering helps out more, while the gearbox shifts with economy in mind (Fiat is yet to announce EPA figures, but after a bout of fairly aggressive mixed driving I saw economy in the high-20s according to the 500X's onboard trip computer, and Fiat envisages low-30s for the final numbers).

Switch to Sport, and the steering assistance drops while the throttle becomes more sensitive. The transmission holds the gears longer, too, though that did have the side effect of making the cabin noticeably noisier. Think more buzzy than throaty, though you definitely notice the 500X feeling altogether meatier on the road. No paddle shifters, but you can knock the gearstick into manual mode and tap it up and down, though it still shows a tendency to nanny by refusing to change down on a couple of occasions, while shifts in general can occasional come with a little prior hunting.

Finally, there's Traction+, which effectively does the opposite of Sport. Starting in second-gear, it reduces throttle input to reduce the change of wheel-spin, and extends the transmission shifts for fewer rapid changes. There's no manual control over AWD switching, however, even in Traction+ mode, so you'll have to trust the 500X's programming to figure out how much of the power – up to 50-percent – to push to the rear.

The overall result is a car that feels fairly dashing, at least in the crossover context. The 500X isn't nippy like the 500 – it doesn't encourage you to dash for gaps and rapidly-closing spaces, throwing a "grazie!" over your shoulder by way of apology – but it has a poise and reassurance that translates to some capability for fun on more winding, twisty roads. It's helped by an admirable lack of body roll despite the taller stance, together with solid dampening, while tactile cues like the thick-rimmed wheel helping set the scene.

The rest of the cabin isn't quite as great a success as that wheel, however. The 500's dashboard is a mass of plastic but appealing all the same, the simply lines, bold gages, and body-colored swathes unlikely to win awards for build quality yet playful nonetheless.

Fiat has made a conscious effort to upscale the 500X's interior, but some of the simplicity has been lost in the process. The combination of unnecessary contouring across the center console, for instance, and the broad range of finishes to the plastic add up to something less cohesive than the smaller car.

Newly redesigned seats are excellent, well-bolstered and finished – in higher trim levels – with leather that belongs in a class above (the brown in a particular triumph), but some of the switchgear has more wobble than you'd expect to find. It's worth noting that I was driving pre-production cars, mind, so while representative of the final thing, it's possible fit & finish could be tauter in production versions.

Dashboard color makes a huge difference. The cars with body-matching panels feel far more akin to the spirit of the 500, brightening the interior (though the optional full-length double sunroof helps there, too) in the Pop, Easy, and Lounge trims. Trekking and Trekking Plus make do with grey.

Either way, the driver gets a multipage 3.5-inch digital color display in the binnacle, while the infotainment system perches on top of the center stack. How big a screen you get depends on which of the three options you've plumped for: the base Pop trim gets Uconnect 3.0 with a simple monochrome display and FM/AM radio, along with aux-in and USB.

Standard on the Easy and Trekking is the Uconnect 5.0, with a 5-inch color touchscreen, SiriusXM, and Bluetooth streaming and hands-free. Finally, there's Uconnect 6.5 – standard on Lounge and Trekking Plus – with a 6.5-inch color touchscreen, navigation powered by TomTom, and all the other features from the lower tiers. An eight-speaker Beats Audio system with a separate subwoofer is also an option on all but Pop trim.

It's fair to say I've been critical of in-car infotainment systems before now, particularly those fitted to more affordable cars, but Fiat's is actually solid. Physical navigation buttons switch between phone, navigation, media, and other pages, while both the 5- and 6.5-inch displays are crisp and responsive. TomTom's 3D mapping looks far better than the graphically-amateurish OEM alternatives out there, and the UI sensibly includes tidbits like the current speed limit, as well as what music is playing even when you have the map on-screen.

Fiat also offers Uconnect Access on both the Uconnect 5.0 and 6.5 systems, pairing with your smartphone to bring things like live traffic updates, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Slacker, Yelp, and more to the dashboard. As with all such systems of its ilk, you're getting a subset of your handset's functionality, but it worked as expected, without undue lag, and the voice control even managed to handle my British accent (something that has confused more than its fair share of the 500X's rivals).

Entertainment options aren't the only boxes that can be ticked. The 500X comes with ABS and traction control as standard, not to mention seven airbags, keyless entry, and hill-start assist, but to that you can throw in a rear view camera, dual-zone automatic climate control, lane assist which nudges you through the wheel if you're drifting, and forward collision mitigation plus that can help with the brakes if you're about to crash into the vehicle in front.

Blind spot assist helps identify any cars in neighboring lanes, while rear cross path detection does something similar for passing traffic or pedestrians when you're reversing out of parking spaces. Then there are the dozens of customization options: paints and trims, different color side mirror housings, bucket seats, and a long list of Mopar add-ons that will all be available right from launch. In fact, the only notable – and odd – omission is adaptive cruise control, which will be offered on European cars but which FCA decided shouldn't be part of the North American line-up.

A few weird decisions like that aside, the 500X adds up to a pretty comprehensive package. The rear accommodation offered enough legroom and headroom for a 5'8 person with someone of similar size up-front, though fitting three adults across the bench might not be the best recipe for a comfortable road-trip. Meanwhile, trunk space is good for the segment – 18.5 cubic feet with the rear seats up, or 50.8 with them down; the front passenger seat also folds flat for unusually long loads – even if the Fiat lacks the flexible gimmicks of some alternatives, like Honda's clever flip-up rear bench in the new HR-V.

Part of me wishes Fiat had called the 500X something else; the company has no shortage of near-iconic nameplates, and could easily have left the 500 badge distinct and opted instead to dub the crossover the Fiat 600 or any of a number of possibilities. According to FCA US, that was a global decision not necessarily a local one, but Fiat is confident the familial ties will help the 500X rather than dilute the 500.

"The reasons people buy small crossovers today" Matt Davis, head of Fiat brand product marketing in North America explained, "are the same reasons that people buy Fiats."

It's cars like the Honda HR-V that Fiat faces, across an increasingly crowded small-crossover space. While it may position itself as the quirky Italian choice, in actual fact the 500X equation is pretty straightforward: everyday practicality blended with some eye-catching style – whether you love it or hate it – along with equipment and safety levels that don't demand a compromise despite you picking a smaller car.

The biggest difference, then, is the ambition. Honda and others want to ship tens of thousands of crossovers, if not more; Fiat, on the other hand, is content to be as close to a boutique player as the mainstream auto industry can support these days.

At those sort of volumes, it's not hard to imagine a would-be 500 buyer leaving the showroom having upgraded to the car's bigger, more practical brother, or an existing 500 driver trading in for a 500X because their dog, baby, or DIY addiction demands more space. It might not be the icon that the 500 is, but the 500X is the car Fiat needs to convince North American drivers it's not just a city gimmick.