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CARMAKERS’ product range expansions, those of premium brands in particular, often encompass forays into smaller segments and niches. Mini bucked that trend late in 2010, however, when it launched the larger, compact-sized Countryman crossover above its Cooper line-up.

At the time, the move was controversial; although the newcomer was styled to look like the iconic hatchback, it was chunkier and family-oriented. Some regarded it a cynical sop to practicality and a dilution of the original car’s spirit. The Fiat 500 range, in turn, underwent a similar development (with the addition of the MPV-inspired 500L), but sales of the grande Cinquecento have been slow. Perhaps the X version, which shares its platform with the well-received Jeep Renegade and seems more in keeping with the market’s prevailing compact crossover craze, will fare better?

Although its Arte Grey paint finish is hardly flattering, the 500X, especially in Cross specification, strikes a fine balance between sporty and cute in terms of appearance. Although the newcomer’s overall form is shapely for a crossover (Fiat purposely referenced the 500’s design cues in the significantly larger X version), a dollop of chunky detailing such as oversized head- and tail-lamp lenses, black cladding, satin chrome finishes and a raised ride height tastefully add to the city slicker’s kerb appeal.

The end result is a boutique look that we believe will appeal especially to the pivotal female market; imagine the 500X in a bolder, brighter choice of colour and you get the idea...

Unfortunately, the 500X’s interior treatment does not quite live up to the crossover’s aesthetically pleasing exterior. It’s not that the Fiat’s cabin feels insubstantial or appears unattractive; there’s reasonable solidity and a pleasing weight to the controls/switchgear, while soft-touch surfaces are provided in strategic positions.

However, the combination of a black dashboard, expansive matte-grey facia-trim inlay and anthracite-coloured leather and fabric upholstery result in a sombre atmosphere. The lower-spec Pop Star model comes standard with body-coloured inserts, à la the Cinquecento, which should brighten things
up somewhat.

Although some CAR testers criticised a lack of commonality between the 500 and the 500X in terms of interior design cues, there are nifty touches such as the art deco numerals on the dials and digital display cluster, and a pair of gloveboxes. The driving position is suitably elevated, which affords generous visibility, and there is height adjustment available on the front passenger seat as well. Rear legroom is fair, but certainly more generous than in light sedans and hatchbacks; meanwhile, the cost of housing a full-sized spare under the boot board, plus the contour of the elegantly sloped hatchback, is a shallow luggage bay.

In terms of specification, the 500X plus offers a five-inch touchscreen audio system with auxiliary input jacks, Bluetooth phone connectivity and streaming, a tyre-pressure monitoring system, electronic parking brake, stop/start technology and cruise control with speed limiter. There’s little amiss in terms of ergonomics, but if you want dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, auto lights and wipers, self-dimming rear-view mirror or a reverse camera and front armrest, just to name a few nice-to-haves, you’ll need to specify them at extra cost.

For the purposes of negotiating the daily commute, however, the 500X excels … for the most part. The combination of a torquey 1,4-litre turbocharged powerplant and a six-speed dual-clutch transmission results in pleasing responsiveness and appreciable nippiness during urban trundles and, importantly, an unburdened left knee in congested traffic conditions.

The test unit reached 100 km/h in under 10,0 seconds, accelerated from 60 to 100 km/h in 5,72 seconds and consumed 7,7 litres/100 km on the fuel route. The latter figure is not as impressive as we had hoped it would be, but it’s almost as good as its competitors’ CAR indexes and we believe a return of closer to 7,0 is reasonably achievable.

That said, some testers noted that the transmission’s shift pattern seemed to become a trifle confused by irregular throttle inputs and, at times, would delay up- or downshifts when the Fiat ascended or descended inclines; suffice to say, a smoother driving style ought to result in serener progress. Should the need to traverse a slippery surface arise, the Cross’ traction control settings can be adjusted for optimal FWD grip via the Drive Mood Selector on the centre console.

In terms of on-road refinement, engine and road noises aren’t too intrusive, but the 500X’s general ride quality is perceptibly more nervous than that of the similarly suspended (MacPherson struts front and rear) Renegade that we tested for the previous issue.

Small, abrupt undulations translate through the suspension with surprising ease, but traversing regular bumps, such as speed humps, provided the Fiat with less difficulty and, in conjunction with the benefit of cruise control and well-bolstered seats, this inner-city runabout should be well suited to undertaking longer trips.

The newcomer’s safety specification will also be a boon to prospective buyers: front, side and curtain airbags, ABS with EBD, electronic stability control, as well as foglamps with turning function, are all fitted as standard.

TEST SUMMARY

As a boutique crossover, this 500X doesn’t seem to have much competition ... if its only rival is the aforementioned Countryman, which in Cooper AT guise offers less performance and specification (R362 748). However, the Mini does not feature in this test’s rivals column because we’re not convinced the Fiat will mainly compete with the Oxford-based marque for sales; even the Italian manufacturer’s local representatives suggest that the 500X goes head to head with the likes of the Nissan Qashqai and Opel Mokka.

In this particular (Cross) specification, the more distinctive styling and slight performance edge (versus the latter) don’t justify the Fiat’s premium, even with a maintenance plan included in the asking price.

To put this evaluation in perspective, the Kia Soul 1,6-litre turbodiesel six-speed automatic, in lavish, range-topping Smart specification, undercuts the 500X 1,4 MultiAir Cross DDCT by a few thousand rand, while the Korean’s 2,0-litre petrol version is cheaper than all the other vehicles mentioned in this test.

The 1,6-litre Pop Star version of the 500X, which will go on sale round the time that this issue appears on the newsstands and foregoes the Cross’ “off-road look” exterior adornments and a few added features, looks much better value at R310 900. That model isn’t available in an automatic, however.

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