Small hatchback wagons that can be ordered with all-wheel-drive are all the rage these days, and that's what might give the new Fiat 500X a shot at stardom.

From an engineering perspective, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) has developed a two-pronged approach that has the 500X and the Jeep division's recently released 2015 Renegade sharing platforms and drivetrains. However where the littlest Jeep's design is decidedly whimsical in nature, the 500X's lines are far more understated. The Fiat is also a more mature and practical version of the basic two-door Fiat 500 and is far more visually appealing than the micro-bus-looking 500L four-door that's similar in size to the 500X. 

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There are more grown-up features to be found inside the 500X as well. The minimalist dash layout of the Fiat 500 gives way to a more elaborate triple gauge pod grouping and adjacent dominating touch-screen display that can be had in the 500X. 

In back it's a tight squeeze for three adult passengers, as you might expect considering the car's dimensions, but total passenger volume is actually a bit more than that of the close-relation Renegade. In nearly every other key measurement, including stowage space, it's a dead heat between the two.

That sameness also extends to engine choices. The starting point is turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder that can be found in a number of FCA models. It's rated at 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.

Optional is a non-turbo 2.4-liter four-cylinder that produces 180 horsepower and 175 pound-feet.

So far, so good, but here's the kicker. If you want the turbo engine you must order the price-leader 500X Pop and your sole transmission choice is a six-speed manual. The punchier 2.4 is optional on the Pop, but standard on the Easy, Trekking, Lounge and Trekking Plus models. Yes, those are the models. Really. That engine locks you into a nine-speed automatic transmission, which is just fine with most car shoppers who rarely opt for manual gearboxes these days.

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As well, the 2.4 is mandatory when equipping your 500X with all-wheel-drive. The system has a free wheeling (and fuel-saving) rear-axle-disconnect feature for those times when directing torque to all four wheels isn't necessary. The AWD comes with a Dynamic Selector knob adjacent to the floor shifter that allows the driver to pick from Auto (default setting), Sport and Traction+, depending on road and driving conditions.

As yet there are no official fuel-economy stats to report, but since the 500X's base weight is about 225 pounds less than the Renegade's, the numbers should be slightly better than the Jeep's 24 mpg city and 31 mpg highway with the turbo 1.4.

Although the Pop, which starts at $20,000, including destination charges, is the base trim, it comes with most key necessities, including air conditioning, cruise control, remote keyless entry, fold-flat passenger seat and four-speaker audio.

The Easy trim adds two more speakers to the audio system, fancier interior trim, keyless start and 17-inch alloy wheels (up from 16-inch steelies).

The Trekking and Trekking Plus are designed to emulate off-road-capable vehicles and come with their own front and side body trim plus unique 17- and 18-inch wheel designs. Unfortunately they don't appear to offer any additional trail-tackling ground clearance.
Both the Trekking Plus and Lounge versions have standard climate control, ambient interior lighting and power-adjustable front seats.

From there you can select a dual-pane power sunroof, 6.5-inch touch-screen with navigation and crash-avoiding forward-collision warning, blind-spot warning and cross-traffic alerts, the latter of which really does put eyes in the back of your head.

With the wide array of small-sized wagons and hatchbacks to choose from and without the polarizing looks of the Jeep Renegade, Fiat will need to push hard for the 500X to be noticed, even with style and substance on its side.

 

What you should know: 2016 Fiat 500X

Type: Four-door, front- /all-wheel-drive sub-compact tall wagon

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Engines (hp): 1.4-liter DOHC I4, turbocharged (160); 2.4-liter DOHC I4 (180)

Transmissions: Six-speed manual (1.4-liter engine); six-speed automatic (2.4).

Market position: The rapidly expanding small-wagon class has many new entries, with more models on the horizon. Their practicality and fuel efficiency are starting to make converts out of defecting sedan owners.

Points; Modern styling stands in contrast to the Jeep Renegade's over-the-top looks; There's no logical reason why the base turbo four-cylinder engine cannot be had with an automatic transmission; Inexpensive all-wheel-drive system is a worthwhile option; Trekking trim levels should do more than simply look off-road tough.

Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; driver's knee airbag; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.

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MPG (city/hwy) 24/31 (1.4 turbo); Base price (incl. destination) $20,900

 

By comparison

Jeep Renegade Base price: $18,900

Love-it-or-hate-it looks, but the Renegade can be outfitted for off-road use.

Nissan Juke Base price: $21,100

Imaginative styling and gutsy turbo engine make this a hot hatch.

Chevrolet Trax Base price: $21,000

Less costly relation to the Buick Encore is surprisingly roomy for its size.