2016 Fiat 500X: The Italian Jeep
As automobiles converge in quality and design, their ability to surprise buyers becomes increasingly rare, but it does happen. Witness the 2016 FIAT 500X.
It is a new, fraternal twin offspring of the acquisition of America's Chrysler by Italy's Fiat, now called FCA, or Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Built in a plant in Melfi, Italy, the 500X carries the same underpinnings as the new Jeep Renegade. But like many fraternal twins, they look nothing alike.
The Renegade exhibits the styling cues of traditional Jeeps. The 500X looks, well, like a Fiat. The surprise comes in the driving.
Most middle aged and younger Americans have little or no experience with Fiats. Older people have memories mainly of little European runabouts and sports cars with reputations for dismal reliability and quality, which led to the brand's departure from the U.S. in 1983.
Fiat returned in 2011 with the cute and stylish 500 hatchback, a tiny two-door subcompact. Since then the company has expanded the line with the bigger 500L four-door hatchback and now with the 500X with a starting price of about $20,000.
In modern parlance, the 500X qualifies as a compact crossover, a type of vehicle that is proliferating, rabbit like, across the automotive landscape. Compact and midsize crossovers currently are the hottest sellers on the market, including luxury and affordable versions. The 500X falls into the latter category.
Generally, crossovers are car-based vehicles that sit higher, like a sport utility vehicle. They have front- or all-wheel drive and somewhat improved ground clearance. But unless specially equipped, like Jeep's "trail rated" models, crossovers are not suited for off-road duty.
The Fiat 500X offers both Trekking and Trekking Plus models, but they're more about delivering a more aggressive look than delivering hard-core off-road capability. Still, its all-wheel-drive system will get you through foul weather conditions and, maybe, modest off-road conditions -- like a croquet court.
The surprise arrives with the 500X's personality and on-road driving dynamics. First thing you notice is its solidity -- a substantial demeanor with hefty but precise steering like an expensive luxury car, an absence of unwanted sounds in the cabin, a responsive throttle, and capable brakes.
Like the Jeep Renegade, the 500X starts with a 160-horsepower, 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine linked to a six-speed manual gearbox on the Pop trim level, which will be attractive to enthusiasts and penny pinchers who value the lower price.
Tested for this review, however, was the Lounge, which is available with everything except for the Trekking trim. It uses the manufacturer's 180-hp, 2.4-liter TigerShark four-cylinder engine connected to a nine-speed automatic transmission that offers manual operation via shift lever.
The 500X uses a variation of the Renegade's Selec-Terrain traction system, which has driver selectable modes for different conditions. On the 500X, the choices are Auto, for daily driving with earlier shift points for more economical driving; Sport, which delivers quicker responses through stability control and steering; and Traction Plus, for low-speed maneuverability and slippery conditions.
The combination makes for a satisfying daily driver under varying conditions. This is a car that handles chasing around duties with aplomb, but will not tire driver and passengers on a long-distance jaunt.
However, don't expect cushy comfort. The 500X is designed with the European bias toward handling over ride. As such, the seats are firm to the point of being off-putting to some U.S. drivers. But they also are supportive in a way that minimizes back discomfort.
The sporting look carries over to the interior, where a good chunk of the dash is painted the same as the outside sheet metal, lending a bit of an appliance look. Similarly, the optional dual-panel sunroof on the test car wears a sunshade made out of a sort of cheesecloth, which admits too much sunlight. I prefer an opaque sunshade.
The 500X delivers the passenger space of a midsize car, with about 50% more luggage space than other 500 models and the advantage of all-wheel drive in a tidy package that measures 14 feet 9 inches long. It's not particularly cheap -- the test car came to $30,900 with all the options. We averaged fuel economy of 24 miles per gallon combined.
At this year's Detroit auto show Ford surprised everybody with its new GT super car. The 500X is nowhere in that category, but it surprises nonetheless and will be especially attractive to those compact crossover buyers with no memory of Fiat's early days.
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Frank A. Aukofer of Falls Church, VA., spent much of his career as a reporter and bureau chief for the Milwaukee (Wis.) Journal and its successor, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His weekly motor vehicle review column started with the Milwaukee Journal and has been included in other newspapers, including the Tennessean in Nashville, the Washington Times and, from 2000 through 2013, Scripps Howard News Service. Aukofer also has free-lanced articles, automotive and otherwise, to the former New York Herald-Tribune, the Washington Star and Post, Newsweek and McGraw-Hill. His car reviews are distributed to web sites, the Detroit News, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and publications served by the Motor Matters. He is the author of "Never a Slow Day" (2009), an autobiography/memoir, with the late Vice Admiral William P. Lawrence, a decorated former Vietnam POW.