Mountain Wheels: Fiat’s more well-rounded 500X enjoys the open road (review)
As a sort of precursor to this week’s eclipse apocalypse on the highways of our north-neighboring states, I hit the road about a month ago to the Black Hills of South Dakota in a small, Italian-built crossover SUV, the Fiat 500X.
And while the legends of Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane and that foul-mouthed Al Swearengen might have been more receptive to a bigger lump of metal — or to Fiat Chrysler America’s very different Italian SUV, the Alfa Romeo Stelvio — I got a pleasant motoring experience that earned me about 30 mpg overall. I also hit Alliance, Nebraska’s Carhenge and hot spots such as Torrington, Wyoming, before this week’s Colorado invasion.
The 500X first appeared in the American market in 2016, two years after its European introduction, when Fiat had some very high hopes for being able to gain new ground in the U.S. Their hope has always been that vehicles infused with a heavy dose of Italian flair, but also heavy on affordable style, might recapture some of the enthusiast spark of the olden days. Here, the giddiness moves marginally mainstream.
Sharing the same platform and much of the same underlying componentry as the small Jeep Renegade and the somewhat larger Jeep Compass, 500X offers a crossover experience that is indeed quite different than others in the very crowded CUV market.
For 500X, that means a 167- or 168-inch long body (the Trekking edition outfitted with all-wheel drive I drove, gets a little extra size) with a 101.2-inch wheelbase, 7.9 inches of ground clearance, and a decent amount of flexible cargo storage — a total of 32 overall rear cubic feet, with a 12.2-cubic-foot cargo spot with the second-row seats up.
Compared to the miniscule spaces and sheer oddity-for-oddity’s sake aesthetic of the standard 500 or even the Pope-approved 500L, 500X seems substantial and almost normal. Though nothing is entirely normal with Fiat, and in the case of the crossover, that’s often a pretty cool diversion from the standard fare in CUV-land.
Fiat perhaps overwhelmed consumers with a few too many choices in build and style when the car was first introduced, with the intent that Scion-styled consumers would go crazy with funky models sporting paint options such as the Rosso Passione Red Hypnotique clear-coat featured in my test vehicle, but 2017’s renditions are limited to three variants: Pop, Trekking or Lounge, each with their own unique spin on the basic package.
My 500X, base priced at $25,250 and lightly optioned to $29,465 (adding comfortable leather bucket seats, a cold-weather package, bright roof rails and a 6.5-inch navigation screen), was also equipped with the more powerful 2.4-liter MultiAir engine, an inline four that generates 180 horsepower and 175 lb.-ft. of torque. Other models offer the 1.4-liter turbo, higher on torque but only 160 HP overall, though that and front-wheel drive can get you up to 34 on the highway.
The bigger engine meant pretty comfortable cruising and an average of 30 mpg overall, with a rear-axle disconnect feature that heightens AWD efficiency on the highway. Clicking the 500X and its nine-speed automatic into sport mode did help the revs better adjust to hills and passing. You may find the steering just a tad pronounced, especially on a long journey.
The 500X’s looks are very much like a grown-up version of the newest 500 — a ridged hood, the happy but less silly “Cars”-inspired face and oversized headlamps, on top of a burly but not-to-be-used-as-serious-snowplow brush guard lower grille.
Big side lamps on stalks, huge ridges along the rocker panels and oversized rear lamps that look like they might have been sourced from a Bentley also round out the style-heavy package — and a large spoiler and liftgate setup that sort of looks like a pint-size Nissan Murano, actually. Despite very, very tall aircraft-styled windows ahead of the side mirrors, I still occasionally had visibility issues, as both the A- and B-pillars are massive.
Height and stance are good enough for easy entries and a tilting and telescoping wheel allows some flexibility during a long drive. I was quite impressed with the seating, extremely plush and bolstered, plus some cool emblems and unique round headrests. Even head room is more than adequate, with a sculpted ceiling. And, believe it or not, the rear seats are also comfortable and nearly as expansive as those in the front, though legroom is just 34.8 inches.
The remaining Fiat-ness is most evident in the funny little silver-flake dash and an array of goofy red and black buttons, egg-shaped controls for the navigation and the air conditioning, plus full seat and wheel heat controls in my tester.
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