The tiny Fiat 500 was introduced a few years ago to rave reviews, and it was followed by the longer but unpraised 500L, and cool little electric 500E. Now comes the 500X, about five inches shorter and one inch wider than the 500L.
The new 2016 Fiat 500X is called a crossover because it’s available with all-wheel drive, and it shares running gear with the rugged little Jeep Renegade (both of them built in Italy). The Renegade just won Northwest Outdoor Activity Vehicle of the Year at an event called Mudfest, a good sign for the components of the 500X.
If you don’t want to drive your 500X like a crossover, you might see it as more of a five-seat hot hatchback. Then it would compete against the likes of the Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class or Audi Q3, or maybe the Nissan Juke. Less ambitious thinkers might cross-shop the 500X with the Mazda CX-3, Chevy Trax, or the all-new Honda HR-V. But the Fiat clearly has spirit on those three. It is Italian, after all.
The 500X was penned in Fiat’s design studio in Turin, Italy, so it’s ironic that, if you use some imagination, you can see Audi hatchback lines, especially toward the rear. The shape is more organic and mature than the other Fiat 500 models. The sides are clean, and the roof flows in a gentle arc.
But it’s all Fiat in the front. It looks like the original 500, not like the 500L made in Serbia. It’s got the same cute face, with a clamshell hood and small slit for a mouth. The Trekking models tweak the nose and tail to remain in rugged character.
Inside the cabin the 500X is neat and clean, while gauges and controls are big and round. The metal trim is body colored, and it looks cool. There’s a decent sized LCD screen that sits on the dash displaying infotainment and other information.
The space and comfort in the front are good. The optional leather bucket seats are firm, with good lumbar but not enough bolstering, and the headrest has an uncomfortable edge.
In the rear, don’t count on much knee or headroom, especially behind tall persons in the front seat, or under the optional sunroof. The new Honda HR-V has way more cabin room.
Cargo space is average for the class, with 50.8 cubic feet behind the front seats. Although the rear seat doesn’t quite fold flat, at least the load floor is low and not too lumpy. The front passenger seatback folds nearly flat, to carry a kayak or whatever. There are 18.5 cubic feet of space behind the second row, and a height-adjustable cargo floor is available on all models except the Pop.
Rear visibility is pinched by the rear headrests, but the view out the windshield is good thanks to the short hood.
Mainly and memorably, the 500X has wonderful interior trim, never mind one big panel of shiny black plastic on the dash. Buyers can choose the color they want for the dash; we like the vivid orange. The Italian sense of style blows the Honda away.
We spent a day behind the wheel of a Fiat 500X Trekking Plus. The driver can select Auto, Sport, or Traction mode, which affects the throttle, transmission, steering and electronic stability control. The handling is almost perky and the steering is quick even in Auto mode, although there is a lack of steering feedback. The suspension is composed during cornering.
Its road manners are good, with a firm ride on the strut suspension, this in spite of riding on big 18-inch wheels. The nine-speed automatic can be abrupt, and is slow to downshift in Auto mode. Brake feel is very good.
The all-wheel-drive Trekking Plus is no Renegade, lacking options such as skid plates and higher ground clearance, and steeper approach angles. The $1900 all-wheel drive will help in snow and ice, and, like many, defaults to front-wheel drive on dry pavement, to achieve an EPA-estimated 31 mpg Highway mileage. It detaches the driveshaft and differential from the front wheels altogether, until wheel slip occurs.
Fiat says only 5 percent of buyers will choose the 1.4-liter turbocharged engine. Despite its 184 foot-pounds of torque and decent 160 horsepower, we found the acceleration lacking, at least we did in the Dodge Dart. We were unable to even test-drive a 500X with that engine. Fiat seems to be hiding it.
On paper, at least, the 2.4-liter engine should only be faster on the freeway, with 20 more horsepower but 9 less foot-pounds of torque than the 1.4 turbo. The 2.4 is an older engine, an evolved version of the four-cylinder that dates back to the Dodge Caliber. In the 500X it’s mostly smooth, if not exactly free-revving, and can move the car’s 3,000-3,150 pounds with ease, but you have to be in Sport mode to get it to respond to a firm foot.
However, the nine-speed automatic transmission lets the engine down, by not shifting out of first and second gears fast enough, and by downshifting slowly in Normal mode. Paddle shifters should be standard, but they’re not even available.
Short of the MINI Countryman, the Fiat 500X is probably the most entertaining compact crossover. Stylish looks, quick handling, good ride, sharp interior.
Driving impressions by Internet Brands Automotive editorial director Marty Padgett; New Car Test Drive correspondent Sam Moses contributed to this review.