Road test: The 2015 Fiat 500X Cross Plus is worth its salt

A well-built variation that's affordable, but none too pretty.

The supersized Fiat 500X Cross Plus is practically priced and comfortable for short drives. Christopher Pike / The National
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It bears as much resemblance to its descendant as the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer does to the Space Shuttle. This was my first thought as I came across a well-worn 1960s "cinquecento" barely five minutes after handing back the 500X – Fiat's new supersized variation on its retro-laced small car that launched in 2007.

The newcomer was conceived to enable Fiat to grab a slice of the booming compact-crossover pie, which has been the fastest-growing market segment across the globe over the past decade. And with a keen entry price point of Dh69,900 – spanning to Dh105,000 for the range-topping Cross Plus tested here – Fiat’s debutant seems set to steal a few sales from the likes of the Nissan Juke, as well as some of the more conventional-­looking compact SUVs.

Although the 500X bears some resemblance to the Mini Countryman – as both are derived from modern-day versions of yesteryear-inspired cars – it’s worth noting that the British-German offering is significantly more expensive, and therefore not a direct rival.

The 500X is offered in three broad trim levels with suitably funky names – Popstar, Lounge and Cross Plus – and it’s the last of these that we sampled. Where the first two (which are front-wheel drive) are pitched as urban runabouts, the all-wheel-drive Cross Plus is touted as a more rugged proposition that’s capable of light-duty off-roading.

With ground clearance of 179mm (versus 162mm for its lesser siblings), chunkier bumpers and protective skid plates, it’s fit for attacking small dunes and rutted gravel tracks, but you shouldn’t have any delusions of scaling Big Red in the diminutive Italian.

The Cross Plus packs a 2.4-­litre Tigershark MultiAir II engine, whereas the lesser models make do with a 1.4-litre turbo unit, yet it feels strangely toothless – quite ironic given its “Tigershark” moniker. Its outputs of 180bhp and 237Nm appear respectable enough on paper, yet out in the real world it feels distinctly sluggardly.

You’d think the nine-speed automatic transmission – a first for this market segment – would help extract the best from the motor, but that’s not the case, ­either. Although a thoroughly new-age design, the nine-­speeder seems distinctly dim-witted at times, and is slow to kick down when you want a burst of acceleration.

There are three driving modes – Sport, Auto and All-Weather – but twirling the rotary “Drive Mood Selector” knob doesn’t do a whole lot, other than altering the information displayed on the dial in the three-pod instrument cluster. The transmission is marginally more proactive in Sport mode, but even then performance is hardly electrifying.

It’s a shame the power train is a bit lacklustre because the rest of the car is actually pretty good. For starters, the chassis is surprisingly taut and grippy, and I found myself cracking a small grin on discovering how vigorously the 500X can be pitched into corners. Its tallboy stance doesn’t seem to hinder it in the slightest.

The 500X also rides with agreeable compliancy, and noise levels aren’t by any means intrusive at highway-cruising speeds. What is intrusive, however, is the annoying speed chime (set to 120kph in this case) that refuses to shut up if you exceed the set velocity. Even subsequently slowing down to 115kph doesn’t do the trick, as the chime seems intent on teaching you a lesson for impudently going past the preset limit.

Speed-chime apart, there’s not much to fault from behind the wheel. The cabin is attractively laid out, the leather-clad front seats are comfortable and the switchgear is, on the whole, sensibly positioned. I would rather the analogue speedometer was placed at the centre of the instrument cluster (rather than off to the left), but that’s my only major beef.

Rear-seat occupants are reasonably well catered to as there’s enough head and knee room, but the backrest is awkwardly upright, so it may not be the best place to be on long journeys. If there are no occupants in the back, the split/fold seats can be tucked out of sight, enabling the 350-litre luggage compartment to be extended sufficiently to stash a mountain bike or a trio of golf bags.

The safety arsenal is pretty ­decent, too. Apart from the ­usual raft of six airbags and driver aids, the 500X Cross Plus is also offered with ERM (electronic rollover mitigation), Hill Start Assist, Lane Assist (lane departure warning system), Blind Spot Assist (lane change assistance system), ParkView reversing camera and Rear Cross Path (reversing blind spot warning system).

To be honest, I don’t like the styling of the 500X. Where the standard 500 looks cute and well proportioned, the new cross­over appears fat and bloated – as though it’s scoffed down too many helpings of pasta and pizzas with all the trimmings.

Although it’s clearly lost the visual charm of its smaller sibling, there’s no denying the 500X Cross Plus represents strong value for money – it’s comfortable, practical and well built, while the kit levels and interior trim quality are a sizeable cut above the rest in its segment.