An Army of One
The return of Fiat to the U.S. was, for those of us in this country that remain Fiat enthusiasts, a pretty big deal. At a time when the import car category was wading into a generic sameness, Fiat – with its subcompact 500 intro – was literally the vape of fresh air. And that freshness was despite the 500 having been available elsewhere for a number of years. With MINI on its radar, along with a window sticker that better spoke to its European origin than its Mexican manufacture, the Fiat franchise was off and running. Until it wasn’t.
Much more recently, it’s been announced that Fiat’s 500 will no longer be produced at Fiat’s plant in Mexico, nor will it be offered in these United States after the current inventory is sold. While no announcement has been made regarding a 500 replacement, Fiat soldiers on (if that’s an appropriate descriptive) with the Fiat 124 Spider, Fiat 500L and Fiat 500X crossover. Of those, the only one with a real business case is the subject of our review, the 500X. It is as mainstream as a Fiat-branded vehicle is going to get, aimed directly at the sweet spot in the American market.
For the 2019 model year, Fiat’s product team scheduled a refresh for its 500X. Happily, the ‘refresh’ was more substantive than most; with this one, Fiat made substantial improvements, beginning under the hood. Gone is Fiat’s own 1.4-liter turbo-four and an available Chrysler-sourced 2.4 liter four. Customers are now given an all-new 1.3 liter Fiat turbo connected to a nine-speed automatic and all-wheel drive, the only powertrain available. Boasting 177 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque, the new powertrain puts the 500X right in the running for the ‘fun to drive’ nod in the small crossover category. Hyundai’s Kona, with its available 1.6-liter turbo, is perhaps a bit more energetic, but the Hyundai’s interior seems tighter, and its sheetmetal borders on ‘too funky’ for some eyes. The 500X, in its responsiveness, reminds me of a mature running back; still quick, but not looking to run through anything; better, then, to run around.
If there’s a downside, however, to the new powertrain, it’s the engine’s relative thirst. With highway estimates of 40 being the new 30, the 500X gets a 24 City/30 Highway/26 Combined EPA estimate, and while that’s better than some it’s not where I’d want to be when launching a revised crossover. Even a mild hybrid or diesel, with a combined estimate of 30+, would offer a real upside in perception, if not a substantive drop in annual costs.
While the 500X attempts to communicate (via a relatively upright stance and organic sheetmetal) the 500’s retro vibe, this is significantly more substantial than the cutish footprint provided by Fiat’s city car. That’s fairly obvious in the walk up to it, and immediately obvious once you sit inside. Behind the wheel a manual seat offers height adjustment, while the greenhouse has enough glass to make you think you’re in an old Microbus – until, of course, you try and find the kitchen. Head, leg and shoulder room are all generous, and within its competitive segment – occupied by nameplates such as Honda HR-V, the aforementioned Kona and Toyota C-HR – only Honda’s HR-V conveys the same spaciousness and utility.
In front of the driver is adequate info, while the infotainment screen blends enough of this century in capability with enough of the last century in its operation. Like its more compact predecessor – you know, the one FCA is about to kill here in the U.S. – the nose is very short, and front overhang almost non-existent. That makes for a relatively easy path in close, congested quarters…like the Starbucks drive-thru.
That same feeling of spaciousness carries over to the backseat and cargo area. Like most compact people haulers, you’re better off taking just yourself and three people, but this is far better for people than something like Mazda’s CX-3. And with the rear seat folded you may not get the love seat into the car, but you can still make a credible run through Ikea. For the love seat, just bring a roof rack.
On the road, the 500X enjoys a composure that’s almost – but not quite – sublime. We wish the steering supplied a tad more feel, and while the 500X gets moving, initial starts are somewhat tepid. But this is a smallish crossover you wouldn’t hesitate to take from New York to Los Angeles, if you’re not flying from New York to LA…because you want legroom.
With a base price of $26K for our Trekking trim, the nanny aids and Uconnect (plus a $1495 destination charge – for that money you’d think it was a fullsize RAM!) brought the total to almost $32K. And that, Dear Readers, is real money. The good news? Fiat’s current business model typically kicks in cash incentives, or includes a super-competitive lease payment. If you can get a deal – and only if you can get a deal – ‘X’ marks the spot.