On The Road

Small vehicles offer big thrills


Courtesy of Fiat
The new Fiat 500X Lounge comes with a 180-horsepower engine with 175 pound-feet of torque.

We recently drove two new vehicles that are practical and fun at the same time – the Volkswagen Golf GTI SE and Fiat 500X Lounge.

They are two examples of the several models in the ultracompetitive compact crossover category of automobiles. Spirited and peppy, in a size that’s easy to maneuver and reasonably economical to buy and own but configured to handle a reasonable amount of cargo, these vehicles are perfect for the young person in college or just starting a career.

The Fiat 500X is a spin-off from the original Fiat 500 that was introduced to emulate the original subcompact Fiats of the 1950s – Italian in its attitude but large enough that it actually can carry four people out to lunch or two people and their gear to a weekend at Coachella. Priced at just under $29,000 in the top-line Lounge trim with the optional Advanced Safety Package added in to get lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring and cross-path detection and delivering 25 mpg, this is an economical car to own.

The Golf GTI SE isn’t quite as eye-catching as the Fiat. The Golf looks more like a shrunken station wagon. It’s actually an inch shorter in length and 6 inches shorter in height than the Fiat, but it may be marginally more practical. Five occupants might actually squeeze in for a quick drive, and with the rear seats folded, the car can carry more than 50 cubic feet of cargo. Including all the same safety systems as the Fiat as standard, the VW is priced a bit more at $32,500.

However, that price differential buys more responsive performance in the VW.

Both cars have four-cylinder engines driving the front wheels, but while the Fiat is rated at an adequate 180 horsepower with 175 pound-feet of torque, the Golf delivers 220 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Nevertheless, it also has a slight margin in fuel economy, at 27 mpg in combined driving. Ride quality, on the other hand, is a bit rougher in the VW than in the Fiat.

Surprisingly, the Golf GTI’s six-speed automatic transmission was less obtrusive than the nine-speed automatic of the Fiat, with smoother shifts making up for the fewer gear ratios. Even more surprising: either car may be ordered with a manual transmission, perhaps reflecting the view that young owners who might gravitate toward the Italianate or Germanic attitudes toward automobiles might also be traditional enough to prefer an old-fashioned involvement in driving.

We were extremely impressed with the understated and up-to-date interior design of the two cars, with high-quality materials used in both. The Fiat does have a slight edge in its information and entertainment systems, offering Uconnect with navigation, while the Golf has a standard touch-screen system and does not include navigation.

Comparing the two, we would opt for the VW Golf GTI with its edge in interior space and performance, but we have to acknowledge that the more stylish appearance of the Fiat 500X and its lower price might be enough in the eyes of the young millennials for whom these two compact crossovers were designed.

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