ON AIR: Heather du Plessis-Allan Drive

4PM - 7PM

Bob Nettleton: Fiat 500X

Bob Nettleton,
Publish Date
Monday, 12 March 2018, 4:01PM

For years the Fiat 500 Bambina was the Peter Pan of the car world because it never grew up, but now this Italian automotive icon has had to upsize to survive in today’s hugely competitive new car market.

These days the Bambina name has gone, now its called the Fiat 500, but still retains a strong sense of identity with its root by retaining the unmistakable Bamibina silhouette. This is the third notable retro car we have seen in the last decade starting with the remake of the Bettle and Mini Cooper.

Fiat’s 500, has now matured into a proper family car with the arrival here of the Fiat 500X with its high riding pseudo urban SUV look. In the UK and Europe the 500 is also sold as a hatch and wagon. The company tracking down a similar path that BMW has taken with the Mini that is available in bewildering array of body styles.

While new to our market, the Fiat 500X has been available on overseas markets since 2014. Spacious, well equipped, safe, the two-model range is keenly priced starting with a six-speed manual entry level variant selling for $22,990. The other half of the range is a high spec POP automatic that lined up for this road test. It retails for a fairly steep $29,990. The warranty is no market leader at three-years/150,000 km, with more manufacturers now offering customers the peace-of-mind of a five-year warranty.

The 500X is fitted with the highly acclaimed 1.4 litre 103 kW MultiAir2 engine featuring Fiat’s unique MultiAir technology. At the heart of the MultiAir is its electro-hydraulic valve management system that reduces fuel consumption by controlling air directly via the inlet valves (without using the throttle) and reduces polluting emissions too (via combustion control). There is a "Mood Selector" drive system. This acts on the engine, brakes, steering and automatic transmission, allowing for different vehicle modes based on the driving style best suited to the situation at hand or road surface. “Auto" is calibrated for everyday driving and targets comfort and minimum fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. "Sport" mode is for the times when you are seeking a zippier drive and to achieve, the engine calibration system is tweaked to provide a more direct and sportier drive.

The test vehicle was a solid rather than vibrant performer. At times the motor did not feel as though it had a full 103kw locked, loaded and ready to go. The low to mid rev range throttle response lacked the urgency I expected from such a well credentialed engine, that on paper at least is one of the more powerful offerings in its class. What it lacks in outright pace is countered by a considerable degree of smooth refinement, and at higher revs it did lift its performance a good notch or two. The problem with that is its not the rev quadrant where most vehicles such as this one spend their every day driving life, which is in the cut and thrust of city limits driving. With bit more low-speed bite the engine could acquit itself better than it does.

A modern twin clutch self-shifting automatic, which are very on trend among European manufacturers is well suited to the engine. It strives and generally succeeds in marrying the performance and response of a manual shift with the ease of an automatic. While not a marriage made in gearbox heaven, it gives little cause for complaint and plenty to compliment. Heading that list are the seamless gear changes, reduced emissions and fuel economy that shades the manual version.

This model has more than the measures of its two- sibling being some 700 mm longer, 122 mm wider and 110 mm taller. All this translates into a spacious interior, with the five seats accessible through four doors, while the wide opening rear hatch is your gateway to a boot compartment that is almost twice the size of the two-door 500.

The additional height of the 500X creates a nicely elevated driving position, and the cabin has the size and presence of bona fide compact SUV. The smart use of the interior space is very evident with extensive storage including four spacious door compartments, a large closable box at the bottom of the dashboard and a second box, also lidded.

For maximum safety, even in difficult conditions, you can select "All Weather" mode that uses a specific engine calibration and ESC controls to maximise performance on slippery or uneven surfaces. It activates the "Traction Plus" control system, for improved grip on tough, slippery terrain. Fiat claim it is more economical and eco-friendly compared to conventional four-wheel drive, increasing efficiency during moderate, everyday off-road use. In conditions with poor grip on a drive wheel, the control unit detects drive wheel slippage and instructs the hydraulic circuit to apply braking force to the wheel with lower grip.

Ride and handling are pretty much what you would expect from a small modern SUV. The suspension dutifully soaks up the bumps. However, the ride becomes rather noisy and crunchy on ‘worse for wear’ country roads with their abrasive and antagonistic surfaces. Because of its extra height and ground clearance body roll bites early, if you are forcing the pace through tighter corners or over undulating terrain. As a total ride and road holding package the suspension does the basics competently. What it's missing is the pizzazz and finesses you would expect or see glimpses of, given its an area where Italian automotive manufacturers have traditionally excelled.

What is the verdict? One of the most appealing Fiat’s in a long time, the 500X is practical, offers a dash of Italian styling flair and performance, all for competitive price, especially the entry level manual model.

ON AIR: Heather du Plessis-Allan Drive

4PM - 7PM