I met someone refreshingly unusual the other day, an automotive industry professional now on his fifth Fiat model. Considering the Italian brand has only been back in North America for six years, that’s a lot of buying and selling.
I can understand, as the wonderful little 500 hatchback and cabriolet are plenty tempting, especially the sporty Abarth which was previously in his garage. I even enjoyed the 500L during my weeklong test for its impressive interior and overall practicality, while it’s difficult for someone my age not to fall in love the classic lines of the new 124 Spider, his wife’s car. Yes, they’re a dual-Fiat family, and if you hadn’t already guessed his familial heritage is Italian.
With sales totaling just 21,252 units at the end of Q3 2017, Fiat’s U.S. division could certainly use more Italian Americans. Of course, Fiats are popular throughout the world, especially so in Central and South America. Having traveled extensively I find those from Latin backgrounds most passionately expressive, which makes Fiat’s fun-loving attitude fitting.
Full disclosure: Despite my two parts Austrian, one part Swedish and another part Scottish heritage, or in other words my average second-world mix, I’ve traveled to Italy and Spain multiple times, lived in Brazil, and currently have homes in Asia’s most Latin-influenced country, the Philippines. Maybe this, and growing up in the ’60s and ’70s when Fiat enjoyed some popularity here in North America, has made me quite the fan of Fiat in general, and this new 500X in particular.
The 500X is my new friend’s latest Fiat, by the way, and my most recent Fiat test vehicle. This 2017 model arrived in just-above-base trim with a few options, which while not as fully featured as the Trekking Plus AWD version I tested last time around, was nevertheless amply appealing. Truly, I expected the 500X to be the breakout vehicle for Fiat when it arrived in 2016, and while it currently makes up about a quarter of the brand’s U.S. sales with 5,875 down the road so far this year, that still represents a very distant last place in the subcompact SUV sales race.
As with any new model, the collective buying public has to like its familial design language for it to see success, and to that end the Fiat brand suffers a similar fate to Mini. I’m not saying the 500X or its siblings are unattractive in any way (ok, the 500L is a bit odd—it gets better for 2018), but like the iconic British carmaker, the equally storied Italian brand has chosen to cling to its past for all North American offerings instead of offering the many more modern designs available globally, and retrospective styling isn’t for everyone.
I can’t say for sure that styling is central to Americans’ lack of interest in the 500X or Fiat in general, but the impressive little SUV remains almost as exclusive as a near-exotic Maserati.
Could it be pricing? The base front-wheel drive 2017 500X Pop starts at $19,995 before freight and fees, although Fiat is now offering a potential $8,000 no-haggle cash-back discount depending on trim. This makes it one of the most affordable in its class, and therefore an even more viable alternative than usual.
Fiat provides four 500X trim levels for 2017. Already noted base Pop trim is immediately followed by the $23,350 Trekking, plus the $24,195 Trekking Urbana Edition, and lastly the top-line $25,150 Lounge. I won’t detail out all the features of the two upper trims or that special edition in this overview, but in short the Trekking gets a sporty off-road theme, the late arrival Trekking Urbana Edition adds a classy gloss black and copper color treatment, and the Lounge is downright luxurious, while these models are positioned above a subcompact SUV that starts out fairly well equipped in base trim.
Standard Pop goodies include bifunctional halogen projector headlamps, body-color powered heatable side mirrors with integrated turn signals, chrome door handles, a body-color rear rooftop spoiler, a chromed exhaust tip, a capless fuel filler, remote keyless entry, an electromechanical parking brake, Fiat’s Dynamic Selector with three driving modes, a body-color instrument panel, a tilt and telescopic multifunction steering wheel, a 3.5-inch multi-information display, micron-filtered air conditioning, four-speaker AM/FM audio with a USB port and aux input, premium soft-touch interior surfacing, cloth upholstery, powered windows, 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks and a fold-forward front-passenger seat, tire pressure monitoring with a display, hill start assist, seven airbags, an antitheft engine immobilizer, a security alarm, and more.
Safety in mind, top-tier trims earn IIHS Top Safety Pick status when optional front crash protection is added, but this level of active safety isn’t available with our tester. Instead, it included an upgrade to a $495 set of 17-inch alloys on 215/55 all-seasons in place of 16-inch steel rims on 215/60s, an $895 Popular Equipment Package with a “Premium wrapped” leatherette steering wheel rim, a leather-wrapped shift knob, a Uconnect 5.0 multimedia center with 5.0-inch color touchscreen, a ParkView reverse camera, Park-Sense rear sonar, voice activation, Bluetooth phone connectivity with streaming audio, a six-speaker stereo, satellite radio with a one-year subscription, another USB port, a front center-sliding armrest, front and rear carpeted floor mats, and more.
Standalone options not yet mention include a fabulous $1,250 dual-pane powered panoramic moonroof, a $695 BeatsAudio sound system, and more if you upgrade to the larger engine and automatic.
Something else I like, Fiat offers an amazing number of paint choices even in its lowest trim, and it’s a massive 12-color palette allowing buyers a lot more personalization than most competitors. Along with 10 base colors, which even include trendy Arancio orange, new Rame Chiaro metallic, a light copper, and classic Italian Rosso Passione, a color Fiat clarifies as “Hypnotique Red” as if that should help us picture it, are three $1,000 tri-coat colors, the latter including bright Giallo Tristrato yellow, and Rosso Amore red.
All trims can be outfitted with either a front- or all-wheel drivetrain, which is nothing unusual, but offering two engines isn’t the class norm. Only base models get the choice of powertrains, however. The puny but potent 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder is the designated engine for the six-speed manual, front-wheel drive variant, and the larger 2.4-liter Tigershark MultiAir four is dedicated to the ZF-designed nine-speed automatic. The smaller turbocharged unit puts out a commendable 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, whereas the bigger naturally aspirated engine makes 180 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque.
I was thrilled to find the six-speed manual inside my 500X tester, which you’ll now know meant its front wheels did the pulling via the smaller 1.4-liter turbo-four powerplant. This actually would be my personal choice, as it’s easily the sportiest offering in the subcompact SUV segment. It’s even more fun to drive than most premium-branded subcompact SUVs, with quick response off the line, a nice notchy gearbox, easy clutch take-up, and an ideal balance of handling prowess and ride quality.
As noted earlier, Fiat’s Dynamic Selector configurable drive modes lets you choose pre-programmed settings to manage throttle response and engine revs before shifts, which is an unusually welcome feature for an SUV in this class, adding yet more to the 500X’ sporty character. What’s more, the little Fiat SUV’s available all-wheel drive system boasts a disconnecting rear axle to minimize fuel consumption when extra traction isn’t required.
As tested the 500X is good for a claimed 25 mpg in the city, 33 on the highway and 28 combined, which is impressive fuel economy for any SUV. Then again the optional engine’s nine-speed automatic keeps its efficiency in check with an estimated rating of 22 city, 30 highway and 25 combined with FWD, or 21, 29, and 24 respectively with AWD.
As good as all this is, the 500X’ most endearing characteristic is its premium-like interior. All the aforementioned features may have already piqued your interest, but more important is how everything comes together inside, giving the little Fiat an advantage in wooing those of us impressed by soft-touch materials quality, high quality switchgear, and advanced digital interfaces. The latter are ultra-easy to use and filled with functionality, whereas even price-friendly Pop trim possesses a level of luxury many in the subcompact SUV class wouldn’t be able to compete against if the 500X were given the chance.
Of course, every vehicle has an Achilles heel, the 500X coming up short on cargo space with just 12.2 cubic feet behind its 60/40-split rear seatbacks and 19.9 cubic feet when they’re folded flat. If this wasn’t a vehicle class that people purchased for passenger/cargo functionality and flexibility first and foremost it wouldn’t be as much of a problem, but the numbers don’t lie. It’s up against class leaders with close to twice as much room in the very back and more than three times as much with their rear seats folded, so it’s not ideal for families with big bags of sports equipment, multiple sets of golf clubs, etcetera.
Consider the 500X the luxury sports coupe of subcompact SUVs, with good rear seat roominess and comfort plus room for most peoples’ daily gear. I certainly never found it lacking, but I wasn’t exactly moving furniture during my weeklong test either. In every other respect the 2017 Fiat 500X is a winner that I’d love to see driving around my neighborhood more often. We certainly need more Italians in my city, or at least those who place passion higher on their priority lists.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press