You may wonder why we’d review the 2016 Fiat 500X. After all, the four-door Fiat costs barely more than $20,000, and this column deals in the world of luxury.
But true luxury has nothing to do with price. It has to do with a certain attitude, a message, a meaningful philosophy. It's comfort, quality, and attractiveness.
I’d argue that, in the same way the Mini Cooper embodies the rally car spirit and the Mazda Miata has become a retro cultural icon, the Fiat 500X has the potential to transcend its price tag into “meaningful” territory. It’s from a heritage Italian brand, for one. Say the name and people recognize the car as a relation of the Fiat Abarth that had those cool Scorpion commercials a few years ago. (Yes, I’m skimming over the whole Chrysler alignment; a corporate structure story is for another day.)
Let’s just say the Fiat 500X's potential still has yet to be entirely tapped.
This is the bigger, higher, longer version of the 500, which Fiat re-introduced in 2007, and which, while cute with its puppy-like gaze, has not quite taken the U.S. by storm. Fiat brand sales including the 500, 500L, and 500X rose only 1 percent last month, compared with October 2014, and totaled only 3,757 units sold. Year-to-date sales across the board are down 9 percent, according to the latest numbers from Fiat.
But these things take time, and the 500X is an important step for Fiat as the brand wades into crossovers, critical terrain for any automaker in the world today. Plus, while the 500X is s-l-o-w and thinly built (more on this later), it does indicate that Fiat has every intention of pushing deeper into this segment. It must, at least to survive here in the U.S.
The fire-engine red “Lounge FWD” version of the 500X I drove around New York for a week was a study in contrasts. (Lounge denotes one of the trim-level names that also include Pop, Easy, and Trekking.) It parked like a dream—fitting into even the tightest spots like some collapsible folding umbrella—and felt spacious inside, with ample headroom and a rear storage compartment large enough to satisfy the most suburban of semi-retirees or young-30s singles, who I believe are the ones most likely to buy this car. Those are two seriously nice attributes.
Its crouched front rounds like a playful downward dog toward a rear raised by 17-inch aluminum wheels with all-season tires. Quad lights sit narrowed and facing slightly up, like a caricature of what happens when you smile so big your cheeks hurt. It looks unique, a little Euro, like one of the Fiat 500s from decades prior blown up like a balloon animal.
But it needs a sunroof. And a gut check. (Street cred among gearheads, this will not get you; I know I don’t have to tell you this.)
In fact, this 2.4-liter four-cylinder gets only 180 horsepower on its nine-speed automatic transmission, which earns a sprint time nearing the 9-second range. You can ride your bike about that fast, right? That’s how it feels. (A downgraded 160-hp, 1.4-liter four-cylinder version that drives the front wheels through a six-speed manual is available, but why would you?)
That transmission jerks all over the place, like a teenager on social media. The powertrain is the same as the one under the Jeep Renegade, and both are built at Fiat’s plant in Melfi, Italy. This fact bodes both well (it evokes that charming Italian heritage!) and ill (to save money, it’s built on the bones of the low-end Renegade).
As for the brakes, well, they work.
Driving the 500X feels like floating along inside a thin metal bubble (the rounded side mirrors and fenders enhance this effect exponentially). You’re sitting high up, which affords a nice vantage point, but you’re completely detached from the road.
You should know that this toy, when filled with upgrades, can cost nearly $33,000, which is what you’d pay for an Audi A3 sedan or a Lexus NX crossover. So if you’re considering it, you’re going to pay a premium on getting a “fun,” “quirky” brand with not a lot of performance. I feel like your eccentric Aunt Kathy who lives in San Francisco would LOVE it.
You Get What You Pay For
The 500X, though, does offer, as standard, accouterments most usually found in luxury cars: keyless entry and go, integrated voice-command capacity, heated front seats, ambient lighting, Bi-Function Halogen Projector Headlamps, fog lamps, automatic headlights, and a Chrysler-developed center touchscreen, to name a few. This is where some of the great potential comes in—it all works seamlessly and is uniform in tactile feel and look.
The speaker quality is subpar, but the Bluetooth works much faster and more seamlessly than those I’ve found in many higher-quality car brands (Porsche, ahem). And the dashboard is cleverly arranged, with a bright red metal front curved around black plastic sides and soft trim.
A $1,500 “Customer Preferred” package gets you leather-covered bucket seats, rear park assist (very necessary), and the most shrilly insistent blind-spot detection system with which I’ve ever crossed paths. Unless you want something truly bare-bones—which is fine, you do you!—you need this package. (The Lounge version I had is already a little more posh than the best level on offer.)
The Target Audience
The main question then is, who will buy this? This is a different question from, who is even meant to buy this?
A spokeswoman for Fiat told me the 500X will attract “a large portion of buyers to come from larger C/D [larger sedan] segments.” She meant people who want high-use factors like a bigger size, affordable price, and fuel economy.
Problem is, this car gets only 30 mpg at the most on the highway, with 22 mpg in the city. That’s decent for a proper SUV—except the Fiat 500X is not that. But it's also not quite catnip for eco- or wallet-concerned buyers. Not to mention the fact that, yes, while it starts off affordable, in its higher echelons this is one expensive toy.
The people who buy this will be (or should be) mildly affluent and already bolstered by another vehicle or two. They’ll be attracted by the classic Italian lines—these are the same that make you feel happy when you see those old photographs of Cinquecentos. This certainly falls in the same class, along with those round-eyed Cooper Pacemans and those nearly symmetrical-front-to-back Fiat Abarths. If you walk toward it straight-on, you may not even realize at first that it has four doors. Cute!
I expect buyers to be well-traveled and mostly urban. Indeed, the one friend I have who owns a Fiat is a French-Vietnamese lady married to an Italian man. They’re European to the core, devoted to Fiat, and fascinating for it. But there aren’t too many couples like this in, say, the American Midwest.
So yes, there are several fine reasons to buy a Fiat 500X—the ample space, adorable exterior, unique brand image—but they’re just not quite the same reasons Fiat has in mind.