In today’s car industry, if there isn’t a subcompact crossover in your lineup, you’re missing out on a large chunk of the pie. In case you haven’t been paying attention, this is a booming segment.
For Fiat, a brand which is still making its teeth here in North America, it’s only fitting that they offer an attractive and well priced subcompact crossover to keep up with the trend. Hence the 500X, the first crossover sold by the Italian carmaker and one that immediately strikes you as the more stylish mini SUV of the segment.
It’s no secret that the Fiat 500X rides on a shared platform with the Jeep Renegade; a vehicle which I drove and absolutely fell in love with due to its attractive price, playful driving characteristics, cheerful design cues, and impressive off-road capability.
Taking such credentials into consideration, it's safe to say that the 500X is off to a good start. Fiat however insists on the fact that although it shares some components with a Jeep product, the 500X is an all Fiat effort, where its engineers have gone through great lengths to tune the chassis towards more dynamic handling characteristics, a trait which is immediately noticed the moment you get behind the wheel.
Under the hood sit the same two available engines as in the Renegade. Base front-wheel drive versions come with the same 1.4-liter turbocharged 160-hp 4-cylinder engine as in the 500 Abarth, mated to a 6-speed manual transmission.
All-wheel drive trims are powered by FCA's proven Tigershark 2.4-liter 4-cylinder unit good for 180 hp and 175 lb-ft of torque. Unfortunately, the larger engine and all-wheel drive can’t be had with a manual transmission.
The combo is instead mated to the same irascible 9-speed automatic transmission found in the Jeep Renegade, a system which, although greatly improving fuel economy, seems more suited for 6-cylinder engines. In the 500X, you get a sense that the engine can’t keep up with the transmission, as it constantly hunts for the right gear.
Very much like the Renegade, the 500X’s driving characteristics can be completely altered thanks to three distinct drive modes: Sport, Auto, and Traction Plus, the latter being a similar setting than the Renegade’s Snow mode, which improves this lifted Fiat’s skills on slippery surfaces or deep snow.
I had the opportunity to try the Fiat 500X in snowy conditions and I can assure you that it is a rather capable vehicle, especially for crawling out of snow banks.
But it’s in Sport mode that the 500X separates itself from its American cousin. In this setting the 9-speed transmission seems to suddenly wake up as it completely alters its shifting characteristics by keeping the revs hanging for throttle inputs, shifting faster and rapidly finding the right gear during aggressive takeoffs making for surprsingly swift accelerations. Sport mode also firms up the electric power steering and puts the engine in a performance setting where it breathes better and emits a more aggressive soundtrack from its exhaust system.
There’s an overall feeling of lightness and playfulness in the way the 500X drives, where you rapidly discover sharp-turn-in and minimal body roll when entering corners. It may not yet be as refined as some of its Japanese competitors, but the 500X’s quirks add up to a rather entertaining driving experience similar to what you find in the 500 Abarth, a car with which the 500X shares some of its suspension components.
The people at Fiat call the 500X a “lifestyle vehicle”, a theme which is carried over in its design language. Step inside the 500X and you’re greeted to a clean and colourful interior that resembles a lounge, where a large slab of plastic that mimics steel spans the dashboard, painted the same colour as the car. Everything looks cool and fresh with easy to operate controls, oversized door handles, a meaty flat-bottom steering wheel and somewhat funky but easy-to-read gauges.
All 500X models are equipped with FCA’s intuitive and easy to operate Uconnect infotainment system, complete with Bluetooth connectivity. Seats are also attractive and comfortable. My tester was the Lounge trim, which came with beautiful brown leather seats and door inserts that further accentuated the 500X’s Italian flair.
Overall, this is a roomy, comfortable, and well put together interior with good quality materials.
Visibility in the 500X is also excellent, but like the Renegade, it’s plagued with rather large A pillars that negatively affect forward visibility. Also, because of the way the 500X’s roof is shaped, rear passenger headroom is sacrificed where tall occupants might find their head rubbing against the ceiling.
There’s no denying the fact that, with vehicles like the Fiat 500X, FCA has what it takes to take on the aggressive foray of competitors in this segment, notably the Honda HR-V, Mazda CX-3, Nissan Juke, and Chevrolet Trax. For the Fiat brand, the fact that the 500X takes all of the Jeep Renegade’s much appreciated qualities and wraps them up in a more stylish and refined Italian package, gives it an edge over its competition. The 500X is an honest to goodness great first attempt from Fiat, one that is definitely worth considering when shopping for a subcompact crossover.
Prices for the 2016 Fiat 500X range from $ 23 190 for a very well equipped entry level model, and topping out at $31 490 and $ 31 990 respectively for top flight Lounge and Trekking Plus trim levels.
Overall, I was pleased with the 500X’s fun to drive handling characteristics, comfortable and stylish interior and surprisingly capable all-weather flexibility. The 2016 Fiat 500X is proof that when executed properly, American ruggedness and Italian flair can in fact work in harmony to create compelling and desirable vehicles.
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Photo credit: Myle Appearance