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2016 FIAT 500X Test Drive Review
The new 500X is a game-changer for the brand, a credible entry in a hot small crossover SUV segment. So it's important for Fiat to get the details right.
If the new Fiat 500X proves reliable and passes crash tests with top marks, this little crossover has the power to change the automaker’s course, shine its image, and crank up the profit machine. If it proves unreliable and doesn’t get a Top Safety Pick or 5-star crash-protection rating, this little crossover is likely to need big rebates to help dealers move the metal. Clearly, Fiat needs to get the 500X exactly right. The company is off to a good start.
Look and Feel
While I pulled my 2016 Fiat 500X test car into a Chipotle parking lot in upscale Westlake Village, Calif., a father and his two teenage sons emerged from the eatery, bellies full of yummy burritos. This trio, while marching toward a black Chevy Suburban LTZ, took note of the 500X, painted Grigio Arte (Gray) and wearing Michigan manufacturer license plates.
As I stepped out and opened the back door to unbuckle my 4-year-old, the father asked: “Is that the new one?”
After replying in the affirmative, and telling him that the 500X was likely to be a huge hit for Fiat, he enquired: “How is it?”
By this time, I’d put all of 25 miles on the car, so I gave him a non-committal: “It’s OK.”
He smirked, perhaps because my downplayed response didn’t jibe with the manufacturer plates on the car, and said: “Well, it sure looks terrific.”
This is a very good sign for Fiat, which until now has struggled to maintain sales momentum with multiple variations of a tiny city car and a multi-purpose vehicle with a distinct, and not entirely pleasing, Italian flavor. The new 500X is a game-changer for the brand, a credible entry in a hot small crossover SUV segment. So it is important for Fiat to get the details right.
Fiat offers the 500X in Pop, Easy, Lounge, Trekking, and Trekking Plus trim levels, the Trekking models featuring more rugged styling cues. I tested a Fiat 500X Lounge with front-wheel drive and the Lounge Collection 1 option package, which installs a blind-spot monitoring system, a rear cross-path detection system, and rear parking-assist sensors for a ridiculously reasonable $350. The sticker price came to $26,100, including a $900 destination charge.
Unmistakable for anything but a Fiat, the 500X Lounge is expressively conservative, especially in my test model’s flat gray paint. For a more distinctive flair, choose the Trekking or Trekking Plus trim levels, which have more rugged styling cues, or select a brighter paint color, such as Arancio, Giallo Tristrato, or Rosso Amore.
Good taste rules within the 500X. Even the basic Pop trim level has a contrast-color dashboard insert and a 2-tone appearance for the seats and door panels. Choose a Lounge or Trekking Plus with leather, and you can get deep, rich brown seat surfaces and door panel inserts.
Given the available variations in terms of paint color, interior color and trim, wheel designs, and exterior detailing, just about anyone can find a 500X that reflects their personal sense of style. Considering that some car buyers will switch brands just to get the color combination they want, Fiat has successfully eliminated at least one objection to buying a 500X.
It also helps that it “looks terrific,” according to impartial observers.
All versions of the 500X except the base Pop trim are equipped with a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine making 180 hp. This is a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) workhorse, installed in a variety of models, and in the 500X it's paired with a 9-speed automatic transmission and a choice between front-wheel drive (FWD) and all-wheel drive (AWD).
That’s right. There are 9 forward speeds for this transmission. The idea is to maximize fuel economy, and the EPA says my 500X with FWD should have returned 22 mpg in the city, 31 on the highway, and 25 in combined driving. During my week shuttling kids around suburbia, the 500X got 21.9 mpg. To be fair, though, highway miles accounted for no more than 40 percent of the total distance traveled. On my test loop, the 500X got 25.6 mpg.
My Lounge test vehicle also had a Dynamic Selector with Auto, Sport, and Traction Plus settings. In Auto mode, the transmission upshifts quickly to maximize fuel economy, and the steering assist is put into Comfort mode. In Sport mode, the 500X feels more energetic and athletic, and the steering exhibits greater heft.
Geared to make the 500X feel strong off the line, the transmission’s behavior really is dependent on what mode the driver has selected and the amount of throttle input. Sometimes the transmission shifts exactly as the driver expects, but other times it does not, upshifting too fast, delaying downshifts, and regularly drawing undue attention to itself. I’d recommend using the manual shift gate, if not for its counterintuitive pattern.
The engine proves powerful enough in the 500X, effortlessly getting the pert little crossover to prevailing freeway speeds, allowing it to ascend mountain grades with ease, and even chirping the tires a bit right off the line. Refinement could be improved in terms of NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), but this isn’t that big a deal.
Steering feels a bit artificial on center, but when spinning it around city corners, or parking lots, or on a twisty mountain road, it provides linear response across the range of motion, combined with appropriate levels of heft.
Suspension tuning is taut but not stiff, a bit bouncy but not wallowy. A 500X will tackle mountain roads and city corners with gusto, making this Fiat fun to drive. On the highway, wind and road noise is nicely muted, making the 500X feel more robust and substantial than its price point might indicate.
If you live where the weather is frequently frightful rather than delightful, the optional AWD system features what Fiat describes as a “fully-disconnecting rear axle,” which means that unless the front wheels slip and you need additional grip, no power is flowing to the rear wheels in order to improve fuel efficiency. The impact on gas mileage, according to the EPA, is negligible. The rating for combined driving is 24 mpg, one less than the front-drive model.
Form and Function
The more time you spend with a 500X, the more you appreciate the small, thoughtful touches that make this Fiat’s interior look and feel more expensive than it is.
From the graining of the 500X’s various surfaces to the metallic trim accents decorating the cabin, the interior exudes a sense of quality. My test vehicle featured dark gray cloth seats with dark brown leatherette bolsters and a light gray dashboard panel that matched the exterior color. The dark brown leatherette was also used on the door panels and genuinely plush armrests, giving this affordable crossover an upscale appearance. Whether or not there is substance beyond the surface remains to be seen.
Front-seat comfort is excellent, and it is easy to get into and out of the 500X. Thanks to the power-operated driver’s seat and the tilt/telescopic steering wheel, a driver can easily find a proper driving position. My wife really appreciated that our test car had a front passenger’s seat height adjuster, while I liked the sliding center-console armrest.
Rear seat space is generous (enough) for two adults, and soft front seatback covers help to keep knees and shins free of bruises. The bottom cushion is firm, high, and supportive, aiding comfort levels.
Kids fit just fine, but I had a difficult time using the 500X’s LATCH anchors. Granted, my forward-facing child safety seat dates to 2010 and is almost ready for retirement as Kid #2 grows out of it, but the seat’s bottom strap anchor points could not be used with the Fiat’s inboard anchors. The seat fabric near the anchor would not stretch enough to allow me to install the strap’s anchor point the proper way, so I needed to fasten it upside down, twist the strap, and then fasten the other side right-side up.
Of course, I also secured the seat with the top strap and the Fiat’s 3-point seat belt, but I’ve never encountered a test car that would not accommodate this particular child safety seat. Therefore, and this is probably good advice no matter what make and model you’re buying, make sure your child safety seat fits.
Not that a Fiat 500X is quite right for families with little kids. Wedging a compact folding stroller into the trunk required placing it on a diagonal, and only with the cargo floor dropped to its lowest point. All Fiat needs to do in order to make a 500X perfect for couples with little kids is to add a few more inches of distance between the rear seatbacks and the tailgate or to carve out more space on the sides of the trunk in order to rectify this problem.
Take the stroller out, and the trunk is a usable size, measuring 12.2 cubic feet to the top of the rear seatbacks. Maximum cargo capacity with the rear seat folded is 32.1 cubic feet, and this latter figure is measured to the 500X’s roof.
Fiat provides useful storage areas up front, thanks to the dual-glove-box design, the deep bin forward of the shifter and located near a USB port, and a deep center-console box containing another USB port and located beneath the armrest. In each seating location, the door armrests have small trays, and the door panels can easily accommodate large water bottles. Rear-seat occupants can also take advantage of storage nets located on the front seatbacks.
I’m a big fan of the Uconnect infotainment technology that FCA uses in its products and find the systems easy and pleasurable to use. Although you cannot get the top-shelf setup with the big 8.4-inch touchscreen display for the 500X, the available 6.5-inch screen that is included with the Fiat’s optional navigation system retains all the user-friendliness, if not all the features, of the Uconnect 8.4 system.
With Uconnect, Fiat supplies traditional knobs for radio volume and tuning, making it easy to perform basic functions without using the screen. Pairing an iPhone 6 to the system proved easy, and I had no trouble streaming music or accepting phone calls. The system even provides voice-text reply capability if you’ve got an Android device.
Where I had trouble with Uconnect 6.5 related to the voice-recognition system. During a hectic day, I needed to make a quick call to my wife, but the Fiat wasn’t interested in saving me time. Maybe I was impatient. Maybe I hit the wrong button because I was looking at the road instead of the steering wheel. All I know is that I got frustrated, grabbed my phone, and in an instant Siri was making that call for me.
The navigation map display is remarkably detailed in terms of topographical information, and a Beats Audio premium sound system is available for the 500X, though my test vehicle did not have it.
The biggest compromise with the Uconnect 6.5 system is that Uconnect Access services are not offered with it, which means that you cannot get 911 Assist emergency calling in a Fiat 500X, or the ability to dictate and send text messages, or Wi-Fi access, or a range of smartphone apps. Y’know, all the stuff younger people with tighter budgets who are looking for a fun, stylish crossover SUV might want.
Aside from the trouble I had with the 500X’s LATCH system, and the fact that 911 Assist emergency calling is unavailable for this model, this Fiat’s potential in terms of preserving a life is promising.
Depending on how you configure a 500X, you can get a forward-collision warning system with automatic emergency braking, a lane-departure warning system with active lane assist, and a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-path detection. A 500X is also available with rear parking assist sensors, rain-sensing wipers, and automatic high-beam headlights.
Think you can’t afford all that? A loaded 500X Lounge costs $31,100 before any discounts. In my book, that represents genuine value.
The only remaining piece of the safety puzzle relates to how the 500X might protect its occupants in a collision. As this review was written, neither the NHTSA nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) had performed crash tests on the Fiat 500X or its corporate platform-mate, the Jeep Renegade.
Driven on my standard test loop, which has a mix of city, suburban, mountain, coastal, and farm roads combined with a stretch of busy Interstate, the 500X got 25.6 mpg. That matches well to the EPA’s estimate of 25 mpg in combined driving. However, during the course of the entire week, my test vehicle returned 21.9 mpg.
As for reliability, nobody really knows how the 500X will perform in the long run. Historically, both Chrysler and Fiat have struggled in this regard. However, the 500X and the Jeep Renegade are among the first fruits of the combined labor of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. For now, let’s say it could go either way. It is worth noting, though, that the Fiat offers one year and 10,000 miles less powertrain coverage when compared to the Jeep.
Fiats are not good at holding their value, according to ALG. As is true for safety and reliability ratings, depreciation ratings are unavailable for the brand-new 500X. Let’s assume, due to its undeniable appeal, that the 500X will perform better than the 500 line of cars and the 500L multi-purpose vehicle, which means it might do an average job in this regard. At least this depreciation issue helps to explain why the 500X’s advertised lease deals are not particularly compelling.
Having spent a week with a 500X, and given first-hand experience with several of this vehicle’s direct competitors, I think it delivers value. It looks and feels more expensive than it is, and even with every option box checked, the 500X still seems reasonably priced.
Still, questions around reliability will remain unanswered for years, and Fiat, unlike Hyundai and Kia, appears disinterested in providing a fantastic warranty in order to quell concerns over quality and dependability. Also, it remains to be seen if a 500X earns top crash-test ratings.
As long as the Fiat 500X ultimately excels in both of these areas, I would expect that the company might have trouble keeping up with demand.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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