Fiats have been bouncing around Europe for almost as long as Europeans have been bouncing around. Fiat, a one-time maker of big, prestigious motorcars, was left in the mess that was Italy after World War II. To navigate that mess Italy needed to get its population off of its feet (the awkward fate of one Benito Mussolini) and into a car. Fiat’s Topolino (little mouse), introduced to the Italian market in the ‘30s, was everything a beleaguered population might hope for. With a tiny footprint and oh-so-economical drivetrain, the Topolino propelled postwar Italy in much the same way VW would motorize Deutschland.
Despite establishing a New York production line early in the last century, Fiat’s presence in the U.S. has been spotty, even with the assist of a postwar alliance between Fiat and Roosevelt (yup, that Roosevelt) Motors. Developing a reputation for so-so reliability (which I would have put it at the feet of a so-so dealer network), Fiat left the U.S. market in 1983, and didn’t return to the States until 2011. And while their relaunch here – with the Mini-esque 500 and its various offshoots – hasn’t been a homerun, sales have been respectable, and those buyers succumbing to the 500’s charms seem fully committed.
The most recent Fiat available to U.S. prospects is the all-new 500X, a 4-door hatch which joins the growing list of subcompact crossovers. With a front fascia resembling – intentionally – the 500 coupe, and a rear hatch not too dissimilar from Porsche’s new Macan, the 4-door is arguably the most visually balanced of anything offered on Fiat’s U.S. showrooms. And if you like the exterior, we think you’ll love the interior. In our Trekking Plus trim the perforated leather is overtly firm, but offers an absolutely gorgeous pallet (Testa Di Moro/Grigio – or dark brown/gray) within the context of a sub-$30K price point. And while the dash is overwhelmingly plastic, its textures recall – vaguely – the early Audi TT; again, not a bad comparison given the Fiat’s entry-level intent.
Interior room seems competitive, with roughly 90 cubic feet available to passengers and an additional 12 cubic feet (rear seat up) given to cargo – or the noisy kid. This is a very airy cabin, without the tunnel-like tendency of some recent CUVs (NX 200t and Murano, to name two). The seating, as mentioned, seems too firm for the backsides of many Americans – especially those with typically ‘generous’ backsides – but if you’re into niche imports you’ll be pleased. Fiat’s product team didn’t give them the Barcalounger treatment, the strategy chosen for the 500 2-door.
Adding to the X’s interior vibe is the available dual-pane sunroof. We wouldn’t crack it in the middle of a Dallas afternoon, but in the morning, when temps haven’t gone above 80, it’s a nice add to a nice day. Wind noise precludes its use much above 40 miles per hour, but then, the Fiat’s TigerShark drivetrain seems disinclined to exceed 40, anyway.
This, then, is my disconnect with the Fiat 500X. Sharing its platform with the Jeep Renegade, we’re all about the Fiat’s chassis dynamic; if only its Tigershark (one of the truly insipid taglines applied to anything, but especially when applied to a wheezy four) had a dynamic. This thing will, after a fashion, actually go (and feels fine once up to speed), but it makes a collection of groans while trying. While not sure if the engine or the calibration of the 9-speed auto is most to blame, FCA’s powertrain team should go back to the start and fashion a drivetrain that provides the aural and visceral excitement a Fiat – any Fiat – should offer.
A month after our initial drive we had a chance to sample a second 500X at the Texas Truck Rodeo. There, the Fiat seemed more responsive, its performance – such as it is – more accessible. And while available with all-wheel drive, we think the hot ticket – or, at least, the warmer ticket – would be the Fiat equipped with Jeep’s low-range 4WD. Then you’d have a Trekking trim appropriate to a trekking descriptive.
We’d also consider the base front-wheel drive 500X. Equipped with the 1.4 liter MultiAir turbo (a variant of which is offered on the Abarth) and connected to a manual trans, this would be just the ticket for romping around town with two or three friends. Throw in a cloth sunroof (not available, but should be…) and, for around $21K, you’ve got La Dolce Vita for under $400/month. The combo might not get you women (OK, maybe women could get women…), but should be good for a free drink.