Some cars look great on paper. They are inexpensive, have tons of cargo space and get great gas mileage.
Other cars can charm you once you see them in person, winning you over with cleverly executed features, an enjoyable driving experience and perfectly shaped seats.
Then there are those whose appeal is more personal. Those cars do not make sense on paper. Nor do they have the other objective qualities that would put them ahead of the competition. Yet folks still fall in love with them and take them home.
Consider the 2019 Fiat 500X subcompact crossover.
It has a much higher base price than most competitors, at $26,235 — that’s more money than many crossovers a size larger. Its EPA-estimated 26 miles per gallon in mixed driving has a similar issue: That figure is not outstanding even in the compact crossover class, even after Fiat swapped in a new engine this year. And all at the same time, the 500X has less rear-seat and cargo space than even the subcompact norm.
The issue is not merely on paper. The 500X has a bumpy ride without the benefit of extra-sprightly handling. And its infotainment system feels like a miniaturized version of a larger screen, rather than one optimized for the Fiat’s little 7 inches.
This barrage of criticisms may leave you wondering why anyone would buy this car. But right when you are thinking that some other reader is seeing a retro-styled Italian car that costs well under $30,000 and has the versatility of an SUV. It is endearing, and it is novel. And it is less expensive or impractical than most heartstring-tugging vehicles.
Consider the 500X against one of its top rivals, another tiny European crossover with a face out of the 1960s: the Mini Countryman. The Mini has a base price that’s some $3,000 higher, and its optional equipment is so expensive that it’s often considered a luxury vehicle — a Lexus competitor more than a Fiat competitor. The Mini has more premium-feeling driving dynamics and interior materials, but you have to pay big bucks for the experience.
Another notable factor is that the 500X is frequently discounted, more so than its competitors. Take enough off the sticker price, and the 500X goes from one of the most expensive subcompact crossovers to a more competitively priced one. Fiat also added all-wheel-drive as standard equipment this year, which adds about $2,000 to most competitors’ base prices.
Also, while some subcompact crossovers feel like shrunken, less-powerful and overall inferior versions of larger vehicles, the 500X embraces its size. It is small because small is cute and fun, not because small is cheap. While the Fiat’s driving experience is not exactly joyful, its rounded face and array of brightly colored paint jobs — with matching interior trim — create a cheery vibe.
Let’s also make a note about the interior: The 500X has the rear-seat and cargo space of a small hatchback, not a typical SUV. But that’s still a fair bit of flexibility, certainly more than you would get in a fun little coupe or even many sedans. What is more, unlike many subcompact crossovers, the 500X provides an SUV-high seating position, helping it feel roomier upfront.
Let’s also discuss another subcompact crossover whose personality helps excuse its shortcomings: the Jeep Renegade, also updated for 2019. You see, although you’d never guess from looking at them, the 500X and Renegade are mechanical twins. Under wildly different bodies, they use the same mechanical components.
The Renegade is far more popular than its 500X cousin, for three key reasons. First, its mini-Jeep look is stealing more hearts than the Fiat’s Italian-retro flair. Secondly, the Jeep’s boxy shape is not just about looks — it also creates more interior room than the Fiat (benefiting cargo more than passengers, though). And thirdly, because Jeep provides less standard equipment than Fiat, you can get a Renegade for a base price of just $23,770.
We sampled the 2019 Renegade this past May at a media event, compared to a full week in the 500X last month. But the two vehicles offered a similar driving experience — decently agile handling but a bumpy ride and an engine that’s neither zippy nor quiet.
Starting with the 2019 model year, the Renegade offers the new 1.3-liter turbocharged engine that’s now standard on the 500X, but the crossovers’ old 2.4-liter four-cylinder still comes standard. The turbo is slightly quicker, slightly quieter and slightly more fuel-efficient, but it’s a pricey option that we would not choose.
We will not gloss over the ways the 500X and Renegade come up short. You can buy crossovers that ride and handle more poise, accelerate more quickly and quietly, have total passenger and cargo space or cost less.
Some of our logical favorites are the sharp-driving Hyundai Kona, the roomier Nissan Rogue Sport and Honda HR-V, and the extra-affordable Kia Soul. You can also often find great deals on the compact-class Hyundai Tucson, Mazda CX-5 and Nissan Rogue for not much more money than a subcompact.
But if the Jeep or Fiat makes you smile and a sea of anonymous Honda and Nissan crossovers do not, yet they are still within your budget that can mean more than all the objective facts in the world.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.