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by David Zatz
The Fiat 500X has practical packaging, a nine-speed automatic, and all sorts of (optional) safety features once found only in luxury cars. It makes for an odd but often appealing package, especially with its new standard equipment / lower pricing.
Our test car generally stuck to the road well for an inexpensive crossover, squealing but not losing much grip on cement, while taking cloverleafs at high speeds, with good stability for a crossover. The ride was cushioned around town, and cement roads didn’t transmit much noise. The ride was fairly busy, and grooved pavement was a bit rough, but it generally dealt well with rough surfaces and potholes.
The electric power-assisted steering was somewhat unnatural, more of an issue on the highway, less noticeable around town. The optional lane-wander-prevention feature was fairly gentle in its corrections, a nice “if you need it, it might be there” item that may help prevent a crash when a driver is distracted or sleepy.
The Chrysler 2.4 liter four-cylinder is coupled to a ZF-designed nine-speed automatic, rated at 21 mpg city, 29 highway in our test car. The TigerShark engine makes most of its power when it’s revving high, and unless you’ve been driving in a sporty way (or turn the knob to Sport shifting), the transmission tends to shift early unless you push the pedal to the metal.
Acceleration was decent enough, and most people won’t usually need more; the all wheel drive helped with extra-fast, quiet launches, and as I got used to pushing the gas pedal down further than normal and letting the engine wind up, I enjoyed the car more, and mileage didn’t seem to suffer. When I first got the car, I thought it was a bit weak and sluggish; using the throttle more heavily to force kickdowns helped a lot. On long hills I sometimes found myself instigating kickdowns that should have happened naturally, and once or twice I needed to wait for a kickdown for a second or two.
The engine has high-performance sounds when pushed hard, and, from the outside, a pleasant burble that suggests more power than you get.
The “feel” control has normal, traction, and sport options. Sport mode keeps the engine running at much higher revs, and creates far more engine braking; it must be rough on gas mileage. I’d like to see a sport mode that simply speeds up shifts and kickdowns.
The area underneath the cargo floor is usable, and below that there is space for a spare tire that you don’t get, which leaves a good way to make sure breakables don’t move around (much).
The cabin was surprisingly roomy, front and rear; the back seats had generous foot space, which made the lack of knee space acceptable. Overall, the Fiat 500X probably has enough space for most people, most of the time. It’s a triumph of packaging over size.
The extra-large sunroof had a light screen-type cover, which let more sun in — good for brightening the interior, not so good for summertime heat. The air conditioner was capable of keeping the car cool, even if it took around half an hour to get the temperature comfortable when we left the car in the sun with the windows closed. In our long 92°F highway trip, we had the fan on halfway and the “max a/c” for most of the journey; it needs to below a lot of air through. This may not be the ideal car for Texas (unless you can park it in the shade).
The car was quiet around town, but wind noise was quite loud at highway speeds, with the optional sunroof being a huge source of noise; it drowned out the stereo and made hands-free phone conversations impossible. Skip the sunroof; it’s a double whammy of noise and heat.
Our test car had the optional 6.5-inch UConnect system; the standard unit is a 5-incher.
Street names on nav-screen maps were tiny, and it was often hard to figure out the overall route, because the summary views weren’t legible. Thicker lettering everywhere, and larger lettering in spots, would do wonders.
The between-gauges turn by turn instructions made up the gap; though a brighter screen and/or bolder, larger text would be major improvements there, too. Some of us wear sunglasses to protect our eyes from the dazzling cement Michigan highways on sunny days; and my own sunglasses made much of the digital information unreadable. It’s not good when you have to raise your shades to figure out the next exit.
The vocal instructions were very good, but the voice was far too bass-heavy and hard to understand over the wind noise. A choice of voices would be handy, or a crisper default voice.
I liked the physical buttons for settings, mute, return, and categories; the two knobs were small, but they were knobs. The voice recognition worked surprisingly well.
There are two overspeed systems, so you can be alerted when you pass a set speed and when you exceed the speed limit by a pre-set number; both have 5 mph increments. They sound a bong and light up the center screen with an obvious warning.
The system read our huge USB thumb drive quickly, and it took only a few seconds for the system to start reading it after starting, though sometimes it started playing songs at random. The optional Beats sound system sounded heavy and had mediocre clarity and separation. On the highway, the satellite radio sounded better than the USB input, a first.
The analog speedometer has an absurd 150 mph top speed which crammed each usable 5 mph portion into a tinier space, and made acceleration visually seem slower (all legal speeds are within less than a third of the dial). Look at it and think about effortlessly maintaining 45 mph.
The climate control system uses three knobs with pushbuttons within; it has a good tactile feel, generally makes sense, and includes a manual fan override. The backup screen worked well.
The Trekking AWD’s upscale-looking leather seats have a pleasant color, dubbed “Brown,” in an unusually prosaic move; the brown leather trim added quite a bit to the interior ambience, and it seems to be part of the Trekking package now, rather than part of the $3,250 Lounge Collection.
We thought the front seat was mildly uncomfortable, firm and not particularly well contoured, but it worked out well on a two-and-a-half-hour drive.
Our test car had the optional blind spot and rear cross path detection. Blind spot protection turned out to be very handy on Michigan highways, as passing cars like to stay in your blind spot for a few minutes (after riding your bumper) before passing. The rear cross path can be essential when backing out of spaces, because it uses sensors in the bumper to see past SUVs and minivans; you can’t duplicate its helpfulness no matter how careful you are.
Safety gear includes the usual stability control and four-wheel antilock disc brakes, along with side curtain airbags for front and rear, seat-mounted side airbags for the front, mandated driver and passenger sets, and a driver’s knee-bag. There is also, on some models, a collision alert system that jerks the brake as well as sounding an alarm; you can set it to not fiddle with the brakes if you choose, and can set the distance to near, medium, or far away depending on your comfort level. There are few false alarms and the owner’s manual has a lot of detail on how it works.
The large windshield, tall ceiling, and side windows give the interior an airy feel. The electric parking brake takes some getting used to, but always cinches up tight and never needs adjustment. If you forget to set it and lock the car, it’ll flash its lights and then issue a long honk.
Options and standard features have changed since the 2016s, to the buyer’s benefit.
We tested a Trekking, in red paint (“Rosso Passione Red Hypnotique”) and brown leather (“Brown”). It listed for $26,245, including destination, all wheel drive, the 2.4 engine, and the nine-speed automatic.
Safety stuff included seat-mounted and curtain-type side airbags, a driver knee bag, electric parking brake (to make sure it’s engaged), four wheel antilock brakes, alarm, bi-halogen projector headlamps, fog and cornering lamps, power heated mirrors with integrated turn signals, and tinted glass.
Comfort stuff included a/c, a five-inch stereo (ours had a 6.5), USB input, six speakers, satellite radio, the digital center gauge, floor mats, aluminum wheels with P215/60R17 tires, and a sliding front armrest.
That’s not bad, but we had a bunch of options that were very useful, the first of which was the backup camera — which came in a package with an eight way power driver’s seat (passengers have manual adjustments), dual-zone automatic climate control, and ambient lighting, all for $995. If you get one option, that’s the one — just for the backup camera, which is pretty much essential in a crossover due to limited rear visibility.
The cold weather package was $450 (heated front seats and steering wheel, and windshield wiper de-icer), also a fine choice; the wiper de-icer alone is probably worth it for northern buyers.
In the “mondo cool” department, we got the Advanced Safety Package, which included a forward collision warning that can stop the car, blind spot monitors, rear cross path detection — an insanely useful technology developed by Chrysler — along with rain-sensitive wipers, automatic high beams, and a lane departure warning (with gentle tugs at the wheel if needed) that’s easy to shut off. That, too, seemed like a good deal, at $1,295.
Less appealing was the $1,495 premium package, with bigger wheels, a mediocre Beats audio system, and a noisy dual pane sunroof. Personally, I would just as soon have cloth as the $900 leather seats, but the $875 radio upgrade — to a 6.5 inch display with navigation and five years of traffic — was almost certainly worth the cost.
Put it all together, and you have a very well equipped $32,255 car — before incentives.
The Fiat 500X seems to be a very practical city car, with all wheel drive making for sure and swift launches in good weather and added traction in bad weather. On the highway, the odd-feeling steering, busy ride, and wind noise are minuses, but it has enough power. There is a lot of usable space, though the car is small on the outside. Given current pricing and incentives, it could be a lower-priced alternative.
Some photos may not be up to our usual standard due to time constraints.
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