Body building is, literally, big business. Gyms around the country are full of muscular bodies pumping iron, to even further increase their girth.
Sales of muscle-building potions have the tills ringing in the pursuit of a beefier look.
It’s happening with our cars, too, as you may have noticed if you’ve tried to park a modern car in any garage more than a couple of decades old. You’ll get the car in, but it’s unlikely you’ll then be able to ease yourself out through the doors which will be jammed against the walls. Just look at the current Mini range. The standard three-door hatch is more than 76cm longer and almost 18cm wider than the original from 1959.
The latest model to go through the enlargement process is the Fiat 500. The 21st century version is already about half as big again as the original Cinquecento on which it’s based, but now the latest manifestation looks like it’s been on some very effective medication. Not, as an amusing viral marketing video on YouTube suggests, a large blue Viagra-type pill which accidentally makes its way into the tank of a standard 500. Body panels bulge and the modest city runabout morphs into a more beefy and significant compact crossover, the 500X.
The designers have done a good job in creating a much bigger car, while retaining the charm and character of its wee brother, to take on the likes of the Mini Countryman, Renault Captur and Nissan Juke.
Some of the features of the iconic 1957 original are carried over, such as the large circular headlamps, its unmistakable nose and clamshell bonnet. On the inside, you’ll also find the signature round headrests.
It follows on from the enlarged MPV, the 500L, with the same aim of attracting a wide range of customers and their varied lifestyles but in two distinct offerings. One is a simple, stylish and economical city car in Pop, Pop Star and Lounge trim levels and the other is a more rugged version, in Cross and Cross Plus spec, for those with more active adventures in mind. There’s a choice of 12 body colours and eight different designs for the 16, 17 and 18-inch alloy wheels, which provides plenty of opportunity for personalisation.
I wanted to experience the four-wheel-drive version, available only in “Amore Red” , so I spent most of the time in the top-of-the-range 2.0-litre diesel Cross version. The nine-speed auto box – a first not only for Fiat but also for the crossover segment – was superbly smooth in its changes on the open road and worked seamlessly to tackle the changing conditions. It was confident on the corners and even with its increased height, there was no real body roll even when pushing on through the bends. There was very little road and wind noise and overall, the experience was good.
The 500X’s four-wheel drive system adopts a fuel-saving rear axle disconnection system that switches between two and four-wheel drive without requiring input from the driver, so there’s excellent pick-up and smooth delivery of power for sure-footed handling in all conditions.
Leaving the asphalt for a short and fairly straightforward off-road section at Fiat’s Balocco proving ground in the countryside between Milan and Turin, it never faltered and took a confident approach to steep tracks, water splashes and claggy mud.
I liked it a lot, especially the slightly higher driving position which helped all-round visibility. Looking round the interior, it was not only stylishly retro and distinctly Italian with high-grade materials, top-quality finishes and practical storage compartments but also well-built, which in the past hasn’t always been the case with some of the specimens they’ve sent us from Europe’s sunnier south.
A quirky touch is in the car’s floor mats. Unique to the 500X, they feature a print of a map of the Melfi factory where it is built, which Fiat say is a means of expressing the pride taken by the Italian manufacturers in creating the car.
Across the range, the car comes with a lot of standard equipment and plenty of other options, including a full-length “Sky Dome” glass sunroof, to make life behind the wheel that much more comfortable. It felt remarkably roomy inside and even in the back, there’s plenty of leg and headroom for all but the tallest and bulkiest passenger.
The biggest surprise for me, though, was when I got behind the wheel of the entry-level 1.4-litre petrol turbo powered version. For a small engine it was impressive in the front-wheel drive version with a remarkable punch of power which was happy to be released through some spirited use of the gearbox. Probably the best compromise of all the power units is the 1.6-litre diesel which would be the best for economy of almost 70mpg if you’re going to be clocking up the miles.
Fiat don’t have a great record in the UK crossover market. Their last effort, the Sedici, developed jointly with Suzuki, did well around Europe but was a damp squib in Britain and was withdrawn in 2010 after only four years. Lessons have been learned and when the 500X arrives here in April, Fiat are confident it will burst on to our roads to follow the 500 saloon and the 500L as the leaders in their segments.
Car Fiat 500X Cross 2.0 Multijet II 140 hp Auto AWD
Engine 1956cc diesel 4 cyl inline. 140 hp. 350 Nm
Performance Top speed 118 mph. 0-62 mph 9.8 secs
Economy 51 mpg combined
CO2 emissions 144g/km