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CUV, ITALIAN STYLE: Stylish, well-equipped 2018 Fiat 500X Trekking faces tough competition in a rapidly burgeoning subcompact segment

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Fiat seems to be having a rather tough time in the U.S. Plunging sales make it hard to make a case for the Italian brand continuing to stay in the American market for much longer.

The marque, which offers the teensy 500, the larger-but-odd-looking 500L and the cute-ute 500X, is even being outsold by its corporate cousin, performance-oriented upscale Alfa Romeo.

Overall sales of traditional small hatchbacks and sedans are sinking as consumer tastes shift toward crossovers, SUVs and trucks. Which should put Fiat’s 500X mini-crossover in position for success.

Trouble is, there are a number of mainstream competitors in this burgeoning sector: Honda offers the hot-selling, thrifty HR-V; Mazda has its stylish, athletic CX-3; General Motors has the urban-focused Trax and upscale Buick Encore. Ford has its new EcoSport; Jeep its Renegade (the 500X’s twin under the skin); Toyota offers the C-HR; Nissan is fielding its new Kicks; and Hyundai has launched its promising Kona.

To compete in such a crowded field, a vehicle has to stand out in one, preferably more, aspects. And therein lies the rub for the 500X: Its only real standout is style, inside and out.

The attractive cabin features decent materials. While the front buckets are comfortable, space is quite tight, particularly in the back seat. Cargo space too is minimal.

Controls are well-arranged, but the leather-clad steering wheel seems unusually thick-rimmed.

The 500X handles competently, but the ride on all but smooth surfaces is grainy and bouncy.

The 2.4-liter engine is reasonably spunky, but fuel economy isn’t that great. The car’s biggest demerit, though, is reserved for the jerky nine-speed automatic transmission, which just can’t seem to select an appropriate gear to meet driver demands.

Bottom line: If perky looks with an Italian accent are high on your requirements, check out the 500X. But there are plenty of better CUV options out there.

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