First Drive: 2016 Fiat 500X

Los Angeles, California - With sales of small crossovers expected to double in the next five years, Fiat’s new 500X compact crossover seems well-timed to take advantage of the segment’s burgeoning popularity. Ranging in price from $21,495 to $32,690 and built on a platform it shares with the new Jeep Renegade and a few other FCA vehicles in Europe, the 4-door 500X is about the same size as the other four-door Fiat, the 500L and is considerably larger than the much cuter two-door Fiat 500. The 500X is also slightly larger than its competitors such as the Mini Countryman, Nissan Juke, Chevrolet Trax and Buick Encore but a bit smaller than the Subaru XV CrossTrek and Mitsubishi RVR.

At first glance, the 500X appears to be a jacked up, more rugged version of the 500L, but the two vehicles are not related, other than by brand.

At first glance, the 500X appears to be a jacked up, more rugged version of the 500L, but the two vehicles are not related, other than by brand. The 500X has a different platform, different dimensions, different (if similar) styling, a higher ground clearance, different interior design and is built in a different assembly plant (Melfi, Italy). The 500X is also the first Fiat available with all-wheel drive, a key feature of its appeal as a small utility vehicle. In fact, according to Ed Broadbear, VP of Marketing at FCA Canada, all-wheel drive is the number one feature desired by buyers in the small utility vehicle segment.

Despite that, all five 500X trim levels come standard with front-wheel drive and the base Pop trim isn’t available with all-wheel drive. If you want all-wheel drive and an automatic transmission in the new 500X, you’ll have to look at the Sport AWD trim or above, starting at $29,190. FCA predicts the Sport will be the most popular 500X trim, with FWD and AWD model sales split evenly. According to FCA’s own price comparisons, 500X pricing is competitive with comparably-equipped competitors.

There are two powertrains available in the 500X: Pop, Sport, and Trekking FWD trims come standard with a turbocharged 160 hp 1.4L four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual transmission, the same powertrain offered in the Fiat 500, 500L and the Jeep Renegade. The turbocharged engine uses 91 octane Premium gas, but 87 octane is acceptable, according to FCA. A new nine-speed automatic transmission is available on all 500X trim levels but it must be teamed with a 180 hp normally aspirated 2.4L four-cylinder engine (also available in the Renegade). The 2.4L engine uses regular 87 octane gas. This engine/transmission combination is optional on the 500X Sport FWD and Trekking FWD trims and standard on the Lounge FWD/AWD and Trekking Plus FWD/AWD trim levels. All 500X models with all-wheel drive come standard with the 2.4L engine and nine-speed automatic transmission.

If you’re a bit confused by all these possible trim/engine/transmission/driveline combinations, you’re not the only one. I had to use an FCA spreadsheet to figure it out.

Another choice you’ll have to make is between the urban-cool appearance of the Pop, Sport and Lounge bodystyles with their body-coloured bumpers and body-coloured dash trim, and the more rugged, SUV-like appearance of the Trekking and Trekking Plus trims which feature upturned front and rear bumper inserts in a titanium colour, dark satin door handles, and satin metallic instrument panel trim. Personally, I like the latter because I think the cuteness of the classic Cinquecento styling is lost on the 500X (as it is on the 500L).

My driving partner and I spent most of a sunny California day driving a top-of-the-line Trekking Plus with the 2.4L engine and nine-speed automatic, but I was able to spend about half an hour in the base Pop trim with the 160 hp 1.4L turbo and six-speed manual transmission. This powertrain combination turned out to be a big disappointment: the turbo engine is weak off the line and the turbo boost comes on suddenly and strongly causing some torque-steer under hard acceleration. The clutch engages smoothly, but the take-up point is way too high (at least in my test car). As well, first gear seemed geared too low and second gear too high creating a drop-off in power. The floor shift lever is easy to move from gear to gear but the throws are a tad long. Bottom line: it’s not the powertrain I’d recommend.

The 180 hp 2.4L engine and ZF nine-speed automatic transmission is a better choice in the 500X. There’s plenty of power, an even torque progression, and it’s surprisingly quiet and vibration free. The nine-speed automatic proved to be a willing partner shifting appropriately and smoothly on an extended drive through the winding roads in the hills just south of Los Angeles. However, there were a couple of times at slow speeds where I experienced a couple of unexpected downshift ‘bumps’. A longer test drive is needed to see if this is an issue.

All 500X models except the base Pop include three driver-selectable performance modes: Auto, Sport and Traction Plus. They’re activated by turning a Dynamic Selector dial on the lower console. Auto provides pre-set throttle, steering and transmission settings that provide an adequate level of performance for typical commuting needs while maximizing fuel economy. Sport mode firms up the steering response, adjusts the shift timing (automatic) to keep engine revs higher, and revises engine calibration to provide better throttle response. Traction Plus allows more wheel slip to counter the tendency of the traction control to stop the drive wheels turning on ice or snow when some wheel slip is needed.

In sunny and warm LA, there was no chance to test the Traction Plus, but we found that Sport mode was very effective at keeping the engine in a sweet spot for prompt throttle response when exiting hairpins, climbing hills, and driving up and down the steep, winding roads of LA back country. It also offered firmer, more immediate steering response from the electric power rack-and-pinion steering. Driving on the freeway and in the busy LA suburbs, we found Normal mode to be the better choice. It provides sufficient get-up-and-go while keeping engine revs low for better fuel economy and quieter running; Auto mode also provides less steering effort for slow-speed turns and parking manoeuvres.

Although Sport mode doesn’t alter the suspensions settings, we were impressed at the way the 500X negotiated twisty two-lane roads at high speed while at the same time providing a quiet, compliant, composed ride devoid of harshness - particularly as the 500X has relatively high ground clearance of 201 mm The 500X’s fully independent suspension (front McPherson strut/rear Chapman strut) is well sorted, providing a great combination of ride and handling – more like what you would expect of a European compact. Wait a minute! It was designed and built in Italy! Some credit must also go to the 500X’s stiff body structure and the 18-inch Continental ContiProcontact all-season tires on our test car. We thoroughly enjoyed driving the 500X on some stomach-churning twisty roads and when my co-driver was driving, I didn’t even get car sick!

The 500X’s AWD system is a sophisticated on-demand system that is designed to run in front-wheel drive when rear traction is not needed in order to improve fuel economy. Unlike full-time systems, it fully disconnects from the rear wheels when in FWD to avoid parasitic loss and save fuel. Front-to-rear torque split is infinitely variable and the AWD system automatically sends power to the rear wheels under certain conditions, such as when accelerating quickly or travelling up steep hills; when the front wheels begin to slip; when the transmission is put in Reverse gear; when stability control is turned off; when the wipers are turned on; or when the outside temperature drops below four degrees Celsius. No input from the driver is needed and the torque transfers are seamless. But unlike some crossovers, there is no driver-selectable centre differential lock.

All 500X trims feature electronic stability control, traction control, electronic brake force distribution, and Hill Start Assist - the latter stops the vehicle rolling back on a hill temporarily when the foot is removed from the brake pedal. Some safety options you might not expect to see in this class are available in the optional Driver Assist Package: Forward Collision Warning with Active Braking, Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross-Path Detection, and Lane Departure Warning with Lane Keep Assist. This package also includes a back-up camera and rear parking sensors.

Like other Fiats, the 500X has a bold and attractive interior design that includes body-coloured accents on the instrument panel (dark satin on Trekking and Trekking Plus), silver trim around the major controls and buttons, a metallic matte finish on the centre console, a sporty thick-rimmed steering wheel and three-gauge instrument cluster with integral information display, a console mounted controller dial for the three driving modes, big metal door handles, and an information touchscreen perched in the centre of the dashtop (these vary in size up to 6.5 inches, depending on the trim level). Top models have leather seats with contrasting piping, ‘500’ embossed into the seatbacks, and matching door inserts. It all looks very nice, but personally I think the leather looks like vinyl.

Access to the cabin through the four large doors is easy and there is sufficient room for four adults. But unlike the 500L, the rear seats in the 500X don’t slide fore and aft to increase legroom. The rear passengers sit high, and when sitting ‘behind myself’ in the 500X, I had sufficient but not generous kneeroom and headroom. Our test car had the optional dual pane sunroof, and the housing for this reduces headroom for front and rear passengers. I had about an inch of headroom. Still, it’s worth remembering that this is a small crossover, and when compared to its competitors, it has more interior volume than most of them.

The cargo area behind the rear seats is a generous 524L and with the split rear seatbacks folded down almost flat, there’s up to 1,438L – that’s more than its major competitors. As well, the front passenger seatback will fold flat, handy for loading long items. Still, the 500X doesn’t offer the flip-and-fold rear seats available in the 500L. The 500X’s cargo area is fully lined and Sport and up models have a reversible cargo floor panel that, when removed, adds additional cargo space. A tire inflation kit is standard: you have to pay extra to get a compact spare tire (not a regular-size tire).

A full list of standard and optional features is listed below, but here are a few notable features: all 500X models come standard with air conditioning, height-adjustable driver and front passenger seats, fold-flat front passenger seat, keyless entry, 3.5-inch in-cluster display, Hill Start Assist, and seven airbags; Sport trims and higher include a 5-inch touch-screen, Bluetooth phone and audio, and Sirius/XM satellite radio with a free 12-month subscription. And the 500X is the only car in its segment available with a heated steering wheel and remote start.

I came away with a generally positive impression of the 500X – it’s both practical and fun-to-drive with the winter versatility of all-wheel drive and a higher ground clearance. And I love that bright orange exterior colour!

The Fiat 500X was designed at Centro Stile in Turin, Italy and is assembled in Melfi, Italy. Its standard 1.4L turbo engine is built in Termoli, Italy while the 2.4L engine is built in Dundee, Michigan.

The 2016 Fiat 500X can be ordered now at FCA dealers but retail deliveries aren’t expected until June.

Pricing: 2016 Fiat 500X
Pop FWD: $21,495
Sport FWD: $25,995
Sport AWD: $29,190
Trekking FWD: $26,995
Trekking AWD: $30,690
Lounge FWD: $29,990
Lounge AWD: $32,190
Trekking Plus FWD: $30,490
Trekking Plus AWD: $32,690

Full Pricing and Equipment: 2016 Fiat 500X

Pop FWD: $21,495
Standard Equipment: turbocharged 1.4-litre SOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission, P215/60R16-inch all-season tires and steel wheels with covers, electric power steering, projector head lights, heated power mirrors, keyless entry, air conditioning, cloth seats, height-adjustable driver and front passenger seats, fold-flat front passenger seatback, 60/40 folding rear seatbacks, tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio and cruise controls, Uconnect 3.0 centre audio system with USB, auxiliary jack and 4 speakers, 3.5-inch display in gauge cluster, 12-volt power outlet, body-coloured instrument panel, electronic parking brake, front power windows with one-touch up/down, rear power windows with one-touch down, seven airbags, Hill Start Assist, Electronic Roll Mitigation, and capless fuel filler
Options: 2.4-litre SOHC 16-valve 4-cylinder engine, 9-speed automatic transmission, hands-free convenience package, compact spare tire

Sport FWD: $25,995
Adds: P215/55R17-inch all-season tires and alloy wheels, front fog lights, Dynamic Control Selector with three driving modes, 5-inch touchscreen and six speakers, hands-free phone and Bluetooth wireless audio, Sirius/XM satellite radio with one-year free subscription, premium steering wheel, reversible height-adjustable cargo floor, deep tint glass, keyless entry and start, automatic head lights, cornering lights
Options: 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engine, 9-speed automatic transmission, 17-inch alloy wheels, Beats Premium Audio, Cold Weather Group, navigation, Driver Assist group, Convenience Group, Dual pane Sunroof, compact spare tire

Sport AWD: $29,190
Adds: 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engine, 9-speed automatic transmission, P215/60R17-inch all-season tires
Options: 17-inch alloy wheels, Beats Premium Audio, Cold Weather Group, Navigation Group, Driver Assist group, Convenience Group, Dual Pane Sunroof, compact spare tire

Trekking FWD: $26,995
Adds: 17-inch alloy wheels with painted pockets, premium cloth seats, satin metallic dash panel, customizable 3.5-inch instrument display, dark satin door handles
Options: 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engine, 9-speed automatic transmission, 18-inch tires and alloy wheels, Beats Premium audio, Cold Weather Group, Navigation Group, Driver Assist Group, Convenience Group, Dual Pane Sunroof, compact spare tire

Trekking AWD: $30,690
Adds: 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engine, 9-speed automatic transmission, P215/60R17-inch all-season tires
Options: 18-inch tires and alloy wheels, Beats Premium audio, Cold Weather Group, Navigation Group, Driver Assist Group, Convenience Group, Dual Pane Sunroof, compact spare tire.

Lounge FWD: $29,990
Adds: standard 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engine, 9-speed automatic transmission, leather seats, heated front seats, heated steering wheel, 3.5-inch customizable instrument display, dual-zone automatic temperature control, power driver’s seat with 4-way lumbar adjustment, premium audio system with nine speakers and subwoofer, body-coloured dash trim, rearview camera, rear Park Assist sensors, cargo privacy cover, chrome window trim, windshield wiper de-icer, ambient interior lighting
Options: 18-inch tires and alloy wheels, Beats Premium Audio, Navigation Group, Technology Group, Dual Pane Sunroof, Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Path Detection, compact spare tire

Lounge AWD: $32,190
Adds: P215/60R17-inch all-season tires
Options: 18-inch tires and alloy wheels, Beats Premium Audio, Navigation Group, Technology Group, Dual Pane Sunroof, Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Path Detection, compact spare tire

Trekking Plus FWD: $30,490
Adds: 225/45R18-inch all-season tires, 18-inch alloy wheels, body-coloured fascia and accents, dark satin instrument panel, dark satin door handles
Options: Beats Premium Audio, Navigation Group, Technology Group, Dual Pane Sunroof, Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Path Detection, compact spare tire

Trekking Plus AWD: $32,690
Adds: P225/55R18-inch all-season tires
Options: Beats Premium Audio, Navigation Group, Technology Group, Dual Pane Sunroof, Blind Spot Monitoring and Rear Cross Path Detection, compact spare tire

With sales of small crossovers expected to double in the next five years, Fiat’s new 500X compact crossover seems well-timed to take... 4/20/2015 10:30:12 AM