THERE'S no doubt that the Fiat 500 has been a phenomenal success for its manufacturer, but it's never been seen as much of a vehicle suitable for rural highways.

But that's about to change. I suppose it was inevitable that the 500 brand, which now has more 'faces than the town clock, would eventually venture into the realms of having a 4 x 4. Fiat has a lot of experience of turning tiny cars into go anywhere vehicles - the Panda 4 x 4 is just one example (see below) - so it's a natural evolutionary move into all-wheel-drive for the 500.

But, the designers have plumped up the proportions somewhat to cater for those off-road aspirations and the 500X models are more akin in size to the likes of Renault's Captur, Mini's Countryman and Nissan's Juke, than the popular image of a 500.

Based on a similar platform to the Jeep Renegade - which is produced in the same factory in Italy - this looks nothing like its US-style sibling. In fact, you'd be hard pushed to say they were 'twins' other than a quick search of the engine and chassis inventory, both of which carry the same DNA.

Fiat has opted to sell this in two distinct versions. The 'urban' version comes with names like Pop, Pop Star and Lounge editions - which explains pretty much their target audience - while the more rural versions will be the Cross and Cross Plus models. As well as certain frippery differentials, the main contrast between the two designations is whether they are two-wheel or all-wheel-drive.

As you would expect from the nomenclature, the Crosses have the 4 x 4 system most suited to rural users. They have more powerful engine options and have 17mm (about three-quarters of an inch) more ground clearance than their two-wheel-drive pals.

Like the Jeep version, there's a huge range - in my mind confusingly too many - engine options, but it also has a really excellent nine-speed automatic gearbox, a feature you would normally expect on a luxury SUV.

Front-wheel drive, petrol-powered models get either a 110hp, 1.6-litre 'E-torQ' engine with a five-speed manual gearbox; or a 140hp 1.4-litre Turbo MultiAir II petrol engine, with a choice of the new-generation six-speed manual gearbox or a six-speed twin-clutch transmission.

All-wheel drive petrols get the nine-speed auto' 'box as standard and are powered by a 170hp, 1.4-litre Turbo MultiAir II engine.

Oil burner options include a 95hp, 1.3-litre MultiJet II turbo diesel, with five-speed manual and the 120hp 1.6-litre MultiJet II turbo diesel equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox, for the two-wheel-drive models, while an 140hp 2.0-litre MultiJet II turbo diesel, matched to either the six-speed manual or nine-speed auto', can be fitted to the 4 x 4s. That's seven engine choices!

The pick of the engine options for the 4 x 4s is the two-litre diesel. Its 140 horses and the auto will do the timed 0-62mph run in a commendable 9.8s - and you can still expect 50-plus mpg.

The four-wheel drive system has a fuel-saving rear axle disconnection system that switches between two and four-wheel drive for on-demand traction. The driver does have some control though, as a drive selector turn knob gives a choice of 'Auto', 'Sport' or 'Traction' - which pretty much do as they say on the knob. Auto is for every-day driving, a quick switch to 'Sport' for overtaking and the like and then 'Traction' for when road conditions are tricky or when off-road.

It certainly proved itself on the long undulating roads in the Borders around Kelso and a short sojourn off-road showed that it is pretty capable in wet and greasy conditions too.

Inside, it's a little less funky than the Pop models, but it still retains the feel of a younger person's vehicle. As you would expect nowadays, there's all sorts of Bluetooth and USB capability, through the intuitive and easy to use Uconnect system. Its five-inch screen has a touch screen, steering wheel remote controls and voice commands and the sound system is very sophisticated and well appointed for such a small vehicle.

The 500X Cross includes the Traction Plus system; dark tinted rear windows; roof bars; unique bumpers front and rear with chrome exhaust trims; specific 17-inch alloy wheels; satin silver exterior detailing; a leather-trimmed gear shifter; a special dashboard finish and an adjustable front armrest with storage.

The range-topping Cross Plus gets HID headlamps; an adjustable cargo floor; front floor mats; 18-inch alloy wheels; the 6.5-inch Uconnect infotainment system with 3D navigation; a 3.5-inch TFT colour display and ambient interior lighting.

Pricing for the FIAT 500X will range from £14,595 for the 1.6 E-torQ 110hp in Pop specification to £25,845 OTR for the 2.0-litre MultiJet II 140hp AT AWD Cross Plus.

• Of course, Fiat already has two 4 x 4 options for its even smaller Panda range. It has a the standard Panda 4 x 4 and also a new one carrying the 'Cross' affix. This latter baby SUV Fiat is the most expensive model in the range.

These have a choice of two engines - a 0.9-litre petrol TwinAir Turbo, producing 90bhp and 145Nm of torque and a 1.3-litre MultiJet II turbo-diesel, producing 80bhp.

I recently tested the twin-cylinder petrol version and immediately I, and all around, noted the distinctive thrum of the Twin Air turbo coaxing the most out of this tiny power unit. But, it's a frugal unit and you can get close to 60mpg with some careful driving.

On the road, it's not much of a performer. It feels sluggish and a bit top heavy, rolling on the corners a bit too much and change downs are necessary when a hill approaches.

But take it off road and it become a different Panda. The Cross has an on-demand 4 x 4 system which sends the power to the wheels with most traction and it has three modes of action - Auto (regular front-wheel drive), Off-Road and Hill Descent, for more tricky landscapes.

The cross has more ground clearance than the standard Panda 4 x 4, which makes it much more agile across stony and rough terrain where its noticeable front-mounted skid plate comes into action. Those skid plates, plus some larger all-season tyres (Goodyear Vector 4 Seasons M+S), extended wheel arches, revised rear bumper and two tow hooks also give the game away that this is the Cross version.

The interior is also quite unique to the Cross, with coloured dash inserts and fabric upholstery with leather bits. But don't expect to get the wife and three kids in - it was a bit cramped even with just me in it!

The new Panda Cross starts from £15,945 for the TwinAir and £16,945 for the MultiJet - or at least £1650 ahead of the standard Panda 4x4.