I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but sub-compact crossovers are so hot right now. They’re practical, have a modicum of capability, and are perfect for the urban-dwelling, active lifestyle 20-somethings that rule the Kingdom of Powerpoint. The 2016 Fiat 500X should be the standard-bearer for the segment. But it’s not, and I can’t understand why.

(Full disclosure: Fiat wanted me to drive the 500X so badly they flew me to LA, fed me fattening foods and high-end liquor at a swank hotel, and gave me some beef jerky. I really liked the beef jerky.)

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The ingredients are all there. The 500X shares its underpinnings with the Jeep Renegade – which I really enjoy – and Fiat managed to do what Mini couldn’t, taking its distinguishing design elements and blowing them into a squat, twee CUV.

They really could’ve screwed it up — see the swollen mutant that is the 500L — but instead Fiat made something that takes all the right cues from the 500, adds another set of doors, and gives it a bit more attitude to go with its altitude.

In profile it’s slightly anonymous, but from the front and rear they’ve managed to blend some odd combination of handsome and hip with quirky and derpy. I kinda love it, and here’s the shocker, it’s even better inside.

Yes, this is actually a Fiat you won’t mind spending time in. The materials are par for the course for a mid-$20k crossover, with some of the door and dash panels made up of less-than-pleasing plastic. If you care about that, you’ll need to jump into the next price bracket. Otherwise, the important bits are smart and solid.

A trio of gauges, with a 3.5-inch TFT cluster in the middle, is framed by a right-sized steering wheel with redundant controls. Like most things from the Fiat-Chrysler conglomerate, the volume and channel switches are on the back of the wheel, which I still don’t like but have gotten used to.

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Toggling through menus and settings is easy and relatively distraction-free, as is the UConnect system – available in either 5- or 6.5-inch sizes – and remains one of the most straightforward, simple, and intuitive touchscreen systems on the market.

The interior is deceptively massive when you consider the 500X’s 101.2-inch wheelbase. The high roof and 61-inch track make for a cabin that feels spacious up front and on the low side of comfortable out back. The rear seats split 60/40, expanding the trunk from 18.5 cubic feet (Cocker Spaniel size) to 50.8 cu-ft (German Shepard spec).

The Trekking Plus model I drove came with all the bits and baubles, including some brushed metal and tweaked fascias on the outside, a panoramic sunroof that lightens up the inside, push-button ignition, and the Cuoio Anticato (read: tobacco) leather seats that look and feel positively fantastic.

The only thing that brings the interior experience down is the branded Beats audio system, which sounds like your favorite artist played through a blown speaker in your high school dealer’s ‘89 Civic.

This lone demerit could be easily rectified with a trip to Best Buy. And if all you care about is style, a nice interior, and a relatively quiet ride, stop reading now, because the rest of the 500X is a hot mess.

Fiat is technically offering a choice of two engines, but that’s pure misdirection. There’s the turbocharged, 1.4-liter Multiair inline-four with 160 HP and 184 lb-ft of torque that’s only available on one model – the entry-level Pop – and only available with a manual transmission. It costs $20,000, no one will buy it, and it’s just a way for Fiat to say “starting at $20k” in ads.

Those that actually buy a 500X will get a 180 HP, 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-pot with 175 lb-ft of torque, because it’s the only engine available with an automatic. In this case, it’s Chrysler’s nine-speed which, somehow, it’s managed to screw up. Again.

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Fiat-Chrysler is having a hard time with tuning this gearbox. It’s horrid in the 200C, solid in the Renegade, mind-boggling in the Cherokee, crazy-for-shifting in the Ram Promaster City, and positively infuriating here in the 500X. And it all comes down to programming.

An engineer I spoke with said it was tuned to be “a bit more aggressive,” but instead it was laggy and unpredictable, either hunting and pecking for the right gear at the right time (and failing), or holding gears for too long, falling out of the powerband and thus, on its face.

There are three available modes on the center console mounted “Dynamic Selector”: Auto, Sport, and Traction +. Auto is fine around town and baffling on backroads; Sport tightens up the electric steering and throttle response and makes the tranny even more confused; while Traction + is for snow and light off-roading, which we never had the need or chance to use because it’s April in California.

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The gearbox issues seemed to be exacerbated by the optional all-wheel drive system, which can shove up to 50 percent of power to the rear wheels. Naturally, it only gets that power when the system detects serious slip, and when it does, there’s a shuddering and a jerking that more than mildly disconcerting.

Despite its front MacPherson struts, multi-link rear, and slight weight drop from its Renegade platform sibling (the curb weight is around 3,000 pounds depending on the spec), the 500X doesn’t just feel heavy, it feels daunting to drive with any sense of spirit. It’s understeer and body roll served up in massive amounts, with no awareness of grip and even less communication through the wheel.

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Are these things the target demographic of the 500X cares about? Probably not. But for something that looks this good, you’d expect the dynamics to match, particularly given the solid chassis that underpins it.

Instead, the 500X is a fashion statement with a nice accoutrement of safety and convenience features, and pricing to match. A nicely spec’d 500X will land squarely in the $23-27k range, with AWD commanding another $1,900.

If you’re looking for something chic and love The Brand, the 500X would be worth considering if its transmission issues get sorted before they land at dealers (testers were pre-production cars).

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But if you’re looking for this size, with a solid design and even better capabilities, Fiat’s corporate siblings at Jeep still have, hands-down, the best package – for less. How it got lost in translation is beyond me.


Contact the author at damon@jalopnik.com.
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