According to the calendar I got free with my take-away the other day, 2016 is the Year of the Monkey. I don’t have a chow mein-splattered bamboo wall decoration as evidence but, for me, 2015 was undoubtedly the year of the crossover.
The concept has been gaining traction for a while now, and in 2015 I drove more of the beefed-up pseudo-off-roaders than anything else. Two of the genus – Nissan’s Qashqai and Vauxhall’s Mokka – made the top ten UK new car registration list and even Fiat – a manufacturer whose current line-up subscribes to the ‘size isn’t everything’ school of car design – has a couple of crossovers and a bona-fide off-roader on the forecourts.
I recently spent a week behind the wheel of the front-wheel-drive 500X and, with the rough-around-the-edges Panda 4x4 fresh in my memory, it was good to see that Fiat have funky refinement in their locker as well as off-the-wall quirk.
The interior still has retro-styling nods to the original 500, but with modern materials, comfort levels and conveniences. The 3.5-inch touchscreen interface is a joy to use, the big icons look like they belong on a Fisher-Price tablet and respond well to the sausage-fingered amongst us.
The fabric portions of the half-leather seats are listed on the specification sheet simply as ’dark grey fabric’, but that description doesn’t do justice to the thick chainmail-esque weave that lends the interior a funky outdoors vibe to match the chunky exterior.
On the outside, the 500X looks like the 500 on steroids, or, as is heavily implied in the TV advert for the car, Viagra. It rides higher than the city car and the flared wheel arches and chunky front valance give it an air of menace. In ‘Off-road Look’ trim, the front bodykit looks like it has a sort of plastic bull-bar beneath the grille. The high-mounted quad headlights – which, done badly, could have made it look bug-eyed – are another bold ingredient in the styling mix.
Putting out 120bhp, the 1.6 Multi-Jet II engine is a real winner. Refined around the town, with a very smooth start/stop system, the 500X was a joy to run as a commuter car and, despite the beefed up bodywork, at 4.2m it’s still no problem when it comes to parking.
At higher speed, the crossover felt pretty nippy. Nought to 60 mph comes in 10.2 seconds and with a top speed of 116mph it’s perfectly capable as a motorway cruiser.
Fiat’s press-pack reckons this 500X will return 68mpg. Our test achieved an average figure of 55mpg.
If you plump for the 2.0 Multi-Jet II diesel variant, you can get the 500X in four-wheel drive. Our test car sent all of its power to the front wheels, but it did come with a setting called ‘traction plus’. This presents you with a readout – similar to that you’d see on a 4x4 – displaying exactly which wheel the engine is sending the power to in the event you hit tricky conditions. In practice, what the setting does is flatten out your throttle response and emulates the function of a limited slip differential, using its traction control and braking systems to keep directing power to where it is needed while reducing wheelspin where it’s not.
It’s a neat trick that could set the two-wheel-drive version of the 500X apart from those 2WD crossovers with absolutely no off-road capability.
After all, there’s something quite sad about seeing a car that looks bred for a trek across the wilderness flounder in the slush in the school car park.