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BY RON SESSIONS, Contributor
Even though FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) is the seventh largest automaker in the world, many Americans are unfamiliar with the Fiat brand. That’s understandable considering Toyota currently sells more cars and trucks in the U.S. in two weeks than Fiat does here in an entire year. And the Fiat footprint in North America is uneven, with sales currently concentrated in the “smile states,” from California and the West Coast across the Sunbelt to Florida and up to the Middle Atlantic states, according to Fiat brand CEO Olivier Francois.
Sink or swim, Fiat’s diving into a competitive sea of CUVs
Jumping into the fast-growing entry crossover-utility segment early and with the 500X’s available all-wheel drive to appeal to snow-state buyers, Fiat is on a mission to broaden that smile.
But why should buyers add this latest iteration of the adorable Cinquecento to their shopping lists? Even FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne himself acknowledged that Fiat needed to put its Fix It Again Tony legacy behind it, one that saw the brand leave the North American market in the early 1980s with its tail between its legs.
That was then, this is now. The truth is: Fiat is back and has sold more than 50,000 cars per year over the last three years.
Its platforms underpin a lot of new FCA product, including the Dodge Dart, Chrysler 200 and hot-selling Jeep Cherokee. And Jeep’s recently introduced Renegade small crossover shares body structure, suspension, steering, brakes, engines and transmissions with the new Fiat 500X. Now, the Fiat brand gets to use these components in a right-sized small crossover all its own that’s right for the times.
Meet the 2016 500X lineup: Pop, Easy, Trekking, Lounge and Trekking Plus.
From the $20,000 base Pop to the $27,100 full-on Trekking Plus, the X looks like a Fiat that works out. A Cinquecento on steroids.
As with other crossovers, it sports extra ground clearance, prominent side cladding, bigger diameter wheels and robust wheel arches. But it also brings the familial whiskers, trapezoidal chin, smiley grille, double round headlamps and clamshell hood of the more diminutive 500 mini-car. Put these together and you have a very stylish and quite unique small crossover with room for five 6-footers and 18.5 cu ft of their stuff. Lower the split-folding rear seat and space jumps to more than 50 cu ft. Even the front passenger seat folds flat for long objects.
Interior comforts maintain modernity
The cabin of the 500X incorporates the smaller 500’s character without coming off as overtly retro. Materials are surprisingly tasteful, easy on the eyes and soft to the touch. The seats are bolstered just right for comfort and support (although the head restraints are hard, small and oddly shaped).
There’s plenty of stash space with two glove boxes, door and console cubbies and all four door armrests pamper bony elbows with ample padding. USB and iPod connection ports sit at the front of the console where you can access them without being double-jointed. Optional heated leather seats, a heated steering wheel and a dual-pane sunroof remind you that while the 500X is a bigger Fiat, it’s still a small car that doesn’t scrimp on the amenities that people want.
All 500Xs from the $22,300 Easy up come with standard touchscreen infotainment systems including SiriusXM, hands-free Bluetooth voice command and Uconnect phone apps while the $24,850 Lounge and $27,100 Trekking Plus add standard HD Radio, GPS navigation and SiriusXM Travel Link.
Each trim level but the base Pop model features a standard Drive Mode selector with three settings. In addition to the default Auto mode which is programmed to help deliver the best fuel economy, a Sport setting firms up the steering, increases the throttle response and gives easier access to part-throttle downshifts in the automatic transmission and Traction+ mode helps rein in the vehicle in slippery conditions.
Driving the Fiat 500X
We drove the 500X on the streets of Los Angeles and the winding hillside two-tracks of Malibu, California. It comes with a 160-hp 1.4-liter turbo or a 180-hp 2.4-liter naturally aspirated 4-cylinder, a 6-speed manual or the segment’s first 9-speed automatic transmission and front- or all-wheel drive. But there’s a catch: If you want a manual transmission, it’s only available on the base Pop model and exclusively with front-wheel drive. If you can live with a basic AM/FM stereo, the otherwise decently equipped Pop isn’t a bad way to go—kind of a roomy hatchback.
The turbo has plenty of torque (184 lb-ft at 2500-4500 rpm) and has no trace of the turbo lag that dogged earlier versions of the engine in the 2013 Dodge Dart. The gearbox gets the job done with decent throws and precise gates. The clutch is easy to modulate, too. Note that premium fuel is recommended.
For those who prefer all-wheel drive or a higher trim level (getting the larger Uconnect infotainment screen would be one reason), the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder/9-speed automatic comes with the deal. This isn’t an engine that will press you back in the seat, but with nine forward speeds the car delivers more-than-adequate acceleration. There are no shift paddles for sporty driving, just a manual tap-shift gate on the floor shifter. But the shifts are seamless. You don’t get the feeling the vehicle is wading through nine gears—rather it always seems to quickly find the ratio that’s right for the road speed and conditions.
Fiat hasn’t yet announced EPA numbers, but we’re thinking the 500X will come in close to the Jeep Renegade with the same powertrains, namely 24 mpg city/31 highway for the 1.4-turbo 6-speed, 22/31 for the front-drive 2.4 automatic and 21/29 for the AWD 2.4. The 2.4 uses regular unleaded.
The 500X’s suspension is firm but not harsh; it feels stable at highway speeds and secure on twisty roads. The Fiat’s ride is more plush than a Mini Countryman’s (the 500X doesn’t use harsh-riding run-flat tires as Mini does). Body motions are well damped and body roll is minimal. Steering, now electrically boosted to save fuel, is linear in response and nicely weighted.
The Fiat 500X’s tires (available in 16, 17 and 18-inch sizes) are skewed more to handling than off-road prowess and have wide footprints for the class. But there’s no spare or even a mini-spare—there’s just an inflator kit and a can of goop which won’t repair a torn sidewall or tire-shredding blowout.
Available safety tech includes blind-spot assist, forward collision mitigation and lane assist that gives feedback and assistive torque to guide you back into the lane.
Designed for America from the start, the Fiat 500X is the least expensive route to a European crossover. While BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi and Lexus are shrinking their models to compete, naturally small Fiat needed only to grow a bit to slide into the segment.
The 2016 500X will be in Fiat “studio” showrooms starting this May with a 12-color palette including yellow, orange, a matte-finish bronze (Bronzo Magnetico) and a “hypnotic” clear-coat red (Rosso Passione)—be still our little hearts.