The 2016 Fiat 500X compact crossover SUV could very well be the mainstream hit the Italian brand has been looking for in the U.S. Conceived and largely developed here, it shares much of its underpinnings with the new Jeep Renegade compact SUV. The new 500X boasts a compelling list of features, a usefully sized package, and a competitive price, all wrapped in styling that puts it not just at the top of its class, but of the entire U.S. Fiat lineup. 

So, it's good, but there's one thing keeping us from getting a 500X tattoo. It's not enough to scratch the 500X off your shopping list, but it could send fence-sitters elsewhere. 

Features and Models 

But let's circle back to that, and start on the most Italian thing about this new little crossover SUV: the style. Designed in Italy, the 500X looks like what Americans expect from a modern Fiat. Thankfully, the styling was influenced by the aggressively adorable little 500, and not the bigger and assertively goofy 500L. However, it's more than just a bigger version of its little brother, especially with the off-road-look trim you'll find on the Trekking and Trekking Plus models. 

Inside, the difference is even more pronounced. Where the 500 and 500L have chintzy-feeling interiors filled with hard plastic, the 500X's soft-touch surfaces on the dash and armrests, very good fit and finish, and a generally upscale feel belie the base Pop model's starting price of $20,900, including the $900 destination charge. The back seat fits three in a pinch, although tall passengers will complain about legroom, and the generous cargo area expands not just by folding the rear seats, but with a long-object accommodation thanks to the flip-forward front seat.

That base Pop model comes standard with a 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder and a 6-speed manual transmission; it's the only way you can get a manual in this car. The rest of the lineup uses the 2.4-liter "Tigershark" 4-cylinder mated to a 9-speed automatic transmission (that combination is optional in the Pop). The Easy ($23,200) and Lounge ($25,750) models emphasize a more "street" look, while the Trekking ($24,000) and Trekking Plus ($28,000) both have an off-road-ready appearance, although the 500X isn't meant for the off-road duty its Jeep Renegade brother can handle. Everything except the Pop model is available with all-wheel drive for an extra $1,900, meaning a fully equipped Fiat 500X Trekking Plus will top $30,000.

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2015

On The Road

Our test car during the introductory drive in and around Malibu, California was a mid-level Trekking with front-wheel drive. It came with the mid-level Uconnect system, with a 5.0-inch full-color display that didn't include navigation, but did have satellite radio, Bluetooth and USB inputs. To that was added the Trekking Collection 3 option package, adding dual-zone climate control, an 8-way power driver's seat, and heated front seats and steering wheel. The total price with destination was a reasonable $25,300. Additional options include a backup camera, a navigation system, and driver assist technologies such as forward collision mitigation and warning, lane-keep assist, and blind spot monitoring with cross-path detection. A Beats audio system, dual-panel sunroof, and leather interior are available on higher-end Lounge and Trekking Plus models. 

Quieter than most of its competitors, wind and tire noise are notably better than SUVs like the Mini Countryman. The 500X's switches and controls all have a good feel and a sensible layout -- we especially liked the user-configurable digital display between the gauges -- and the soft elbow rests on the doors and center console bin all help add to the refined feel. The 2.4-liter 4-cylnider engine sounds appropriately Italian, and with 180 horsepower it feels plenty strong. 

The 9-speed automatic is an upgraded version of what's in the Jeep Cherokee, Chrysler 200, and other Fiat-Chrysler vehicles. Mash the throttle to the floor and it downshifts quicker than in those cars, but it's still slower and harsher than competitors. All 500X models except Pop come with a Dynamic Selector knob that controls various drive settings. Move it from Auto to Sport and the transmission responds quicker and holds revs better, but it still needs another round of polish. Sport mode also stiffens the steering response and makes the engine more sensitive to throttle inputs. The other setting, Traction+, remodulates everything to increase traction when roads get slick. 

Stiff Legs

The Fiat 500X handles surprisingly well, acquitting itself quite well on the twisty roads in the Malibu hills with sharp electrically assisted steering and flat, controlled cornering. But that brings us to our biggest complaint about the 500X: Around town or on the highway the suspension is simply too stiff, and doesn't isolate the body from dips and larger bumps. Rather than floating over a medium-sized dip, the 500X bounces up and down uncomfortably. The same is true for mid-size and larger bumps, and you'll quickly discover just how many of those kinds of undulations are out there. While we like the handling, we think buyers are more likely to cruise around town rather than push their 500X to the limit on a mountain road. Slightly softer shocks would likely solve the problem, and since we drove pre-production vehicles, it's possible that the final suspension calibrations may change. Even if it stays the same, there's a good chance that those shopping at a Fiat dealership will expect more bite in their suspension, and that sportiness may be just what they're looking for. 

Based on looks, price, and value, the 2016 Fiat 500X has all the makings of a hit as an early entry into a rapidly expanding market segment. Even against competitors like the upcoming Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3, the new Fiat 500X makes a good case for itself as an American Fiat. Stiff suspension or not, the combination of value and style will be hard to ignore.

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