So successful was the rebirth of the Fiat 500 that the Italian automaker now milks the legendary nameplate for all its worth, introducing bigger versions of the 500 in an effort to capture sales in other market segments.

Based on the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles group’s Small Platform (SCCS), which also underpins the 500L and Jeep Regenade (soon to reach SA), it actually shares very little with the 500 besides obvious design traits. 

The crossover was penned under the guidance of Roberto Giolito, head of the group’s Centro Stile in Turin, to take on the likes of Nissan’s Qashqai, the Suzuki SX4, Peugeot 2008, Opel Mokka and Mini Countryman.

In essence the X is a 500 that, like Popeye, went on a spinach binge to beef up; also illustrated in a teaser video relating the wayward misadventures of a little blue pill that eventually lands in the fuel tank of a 500…  

The classic 500 shape has been retained, with stylistic references such as the rounded lights, logo usage and chrome-plated moustache in front, high waistline and distinctively sloped rear end.

What were clear from the international media launch are Fiat’s high expectations of its new crossover. Not only was it referred to as “the best Fiat ever”, it was also mooted as the model that will achieve tons of sales.

To achieve this the X will be sold in more than 100 countries, including the US, and also locally. Two different versions – a front wheel-drive range incorporating three trim levels (Pop, Popstar and Lounge) and an off-road version with the option of four-wheel drive (Cross and Cross Plus) – will be available.

Built at the Sata plant in Melfi, Italy, on the same line as the Renegade, three petrol-engined derivatives and two diesel models will initially be available.

The range starts with a petrol driven 1.6-litre E-TorQ (81kW, 165Nm) and 1.4 MultiAir turbo (103kW, 230Nm) models, soon to be joined by the more powerful 140kW 2.4-litre Tigershark MultiAir2.

On the diesel side the initial 88kW1.6 Multijet II and 103kW 2.0 Multijet II diesels will be extended with a 127kW 1.4 Turbo MultiAir2 model, featuring a 9-speed automatic gearbox and four-wheel drive.

Locally only two petrol-driven front wheel-drive models – the 1.6-litre E-TorQ with a five-speed ’box and 1,4 MultiAir turbo with six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch transmission – are considered for introduction in 2015.

Pricing concern and possible cannibalisation between the Renegade and 500X are cited as reasons for not considering a 4x4 derivative. 

Personally I’m not convinced by this argument. In my view the 500X and Renegade appeal to very different customers in terms of styling and user expectations. 

While the Renegade will be snapped up by customers wanting the rugged Jeep look, Fiat aficionado will take the X for its soft-roader image, while appreciating some 4x4-capability. A 4x4 derivative (even made available in very limited numbers) will help Fiat attain more conquest sales – a key objective of this model.

The 2.0 MultiJet 4x4 Cross Plus with rear axle disconnection system, increased ground clearance (from 162 mm to 179 mm), and good approach (21.3°), ramp (22.3°.) and departure (30.1°) angles, proved quite capable on a moderate off-road test track.

It also has a Traction function, activating the electronic limited slip diff when required for uphill climbs, and its ZF nine-speed auto in essence provide an extra gear for off-road application.

Its more aggressive styling and extra cladding, such as specific bumpers and protective skid plates, also looks the part – something local buyers may appreciate.

The X’s interior is also reminiscent of the 500 with the instrument panel divided into three circular sections and three buttons on the fascia resembling the small levers of old 500. Seven interior configurations, with combinations of different types of fabric, leather, finishes and colours, are available.

It’s well-appointed, with systems such as radar assisted braking, lane assist, blind spot assist, a Parkview rear reversing camera, hill start assist and TPMS (tyre pressure monitoring system) in the top models. 

But the biggest surprise was the quality of materials and workmanship, which is on par with the best in class.

Not only that, but sampling it on some smooth highways and twisty mountain roads it turned out to be fun to drive as well, with exemplary road manners.

The 1,4 T MultiAir model impressed with its willingness and low-down grunt, made even more pronounced by selecting Sport on the Fiat “mood selector” – a console-mounted knob for different traction options (Auto, Sport and All-Weather for slippery conditions) in the FWD models.

In this mode the light, yet accurate, steering became noticeably livelier, the throttle response was quicker and the MacPherson strut suspension’s damping firmer –allowing you to chuck it through fast sweeps with gusto.

It also impressed with its ride quality, easily soaking up the bumps without losing chassis composure, even in Auto mode.

More details, including pricing, will be revealed closer to launch, but what’s clear so far is that the 500X is a compelling and attractive package – the right vehicle at the right time for Fiat, and a serious contender for the class-leader Qashqai.

It may just turn out to be the best Fiat ever, in the sense of re-establishing the Italian automaker’s credentials in South Africa.

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