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Mountain Wheels: Fiat 500X’s new turbo power broadens its import appeal

Andy Stonehouse
Mountain Wheels
Built in Italy and featuring a new, more powerful, Polish-built turbo engine, the Fiat 500X is about as exotic as you’ll get in FCA’s American lineup.
Courtesy photo

Imbued with a much-welcome jolt of 1.3-liter turbo power, the small, Italian-built 500X crossover is still all Fiat. But for American driving purposes, it’s also the company’s least strange import, part of an increasingly international automotive family — even the Alfa Romeos are a little more exotic than this rugged, friendly and largely appealing small vehicle, equipped with standard all-wheel drive.

The Polish-built engine, a direct-injection turbo with electronic stop-start that does not shake the living daylights out of you when it does its sleep/awake cycle, is truly the biggest story here. I’ve had a couple of long-range drives in the not-so-distant past, and the 177 horsepower and a vaguely sporty 210 foot-pounds of torque are exactly what this little crossover needed for smoother and more powerful cruising. It’s matched to an American-made, nine-speed transmission.

It’ll also haul along at 75 mph or more all day, it is able to confidently tear up the passes and, when done in an extra-careful fashion, will even get you past some slowpoke cement trucks clogging up Colorado Highway 9 on their way south from Kremmling. Remember, 177 horsepower and a 3,305-pound curb weight, so give yourself a little extra distance.

The net effect is more pleasant and easy-going cruising than before, plus the added bonus of 32.7 mpg on a 600-mile journey I took, which is pretty decent, all things considered.

Yes, it’s still a peculiar, non-mainstream vehicle, with curious looks and curious controls — accentuated heavily in a silver with orange racing stripes and orange mirror caps color scheme on the Trekking AWD model I drove, or even the Rosso Passionate (hypnotic red) color I had on another slightly higher-end Trekking Plus model.

But if you’re tired of every other small crossover looking practically the same, maybe you’ll enjoy the opportunity to get a little weird with the 500X, in a good way. It’s also pretty reasonably priced for a small, turbo-powered AWD vehicle with decent clearance and rudimentary off-road capability, with the Trekking model base price starting at $25,995 (optioned up to $32,805) and the Plus stickered at $34,325, as it included many of the more base model’s options, plus leather seating.

Yes, steering is still rudimentary, sometimes vague and sometimes a total handful, but over a very long haul, I got used to 500X’s eccentricities and found it stable, responsive and enjoyable on curves, so it certainly holds some appeal.

How odd? How about the “no step” labels on the low-hanging rocker panel/body guards below the rear doors? Or boisterous four-tone seats, including washable denim-styled inserts, comfortable for a longish haul? Or, hitting the traction control knob on the dash about 35 times in a row, mistaking it for the deeply recessed pushbutton starter, smooshed up against the steering column? Fist-sized, body-colored inserts in the rear tail lamps?

Yeah, there’s a lot of odd choices here, but remember — actually made in Italy and not a Jeep Renegade, which remains one of my least favorite vehicles. I would take this in a heartbeat, though the two share a considerable pile of parts and underpinnings.

Maybe you’ll fall in love with the 500X’s eccentricities but appreciate their practicality at the same time. The cabin design is certainly bright and attractive, with a painted silver plastic dash and textured plastic console (candy apple red in my other tester), dual-level glove boxes, and three of the largest AC control knobs this side of the Toyota 4Runner. Oversized, a la Mini, is the theme here, with a gigantic shift knob, dual USB outlets and a flat navigation and information screen, itself a bit of a reach from a fully planted sitting position. The instrument cluster is also vaguely Roger Rabbit-inspired, with helpful electronic readouts midscreen.

A three-mode driving mode button either guns up the revs for sport or cools your jets a bit for snow or wet weather.

And while it’s a load of comfortable fun up front, don’t convince your friends that 600 miles in the back seat will be much of a party. While they get taller-perched, full-sized seats with massive headrests, they also get what seemed to be about an inch of leg room (technically 34.8 inches, but I certainly wouldn’t want to spend much time back there). Rear cargo space is also somewhat limited without the rear seats dropped, with just 14.1 cubic feet in the seat-upright position.

Looks are definitely one of the 500X’s strongest attributes, and I liked the car’s overall shape, the added Thule rack on my silver-and-orange long-distance machine, and design that includes glowing LED lights around the headlamps and turn signals. The 18-inch wheels seem hugely oversized given the Fiat’s scale, but meant a pleasant and responsive ride.  

The Fiat 500X is also available in a sport model, with flashier 19-inch wheels, a single body color on all the moldings, aluminum pedals and even some Alcantara inserts in the cabin. Other models, Fiat-style, include the base Pop, besides the two grades of Trekking.

Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Greeley. Contact him at rossandrewstonehouse@gmail.com.


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