Dear Fiat (FIAT?),
I didn’t want to love your little 500X crossover. I frankly find the very notion of it ridiculous. In fact, the only reason why I selected it as my rental car last week was because the keys were strangely missing from the cabin of the Ford Edge SEL that IÂ reallyÂ wanted to borrow. If I hadn’t picked your bug-eyed cute monster, I would have had my choice of three different colors of four-cylinder Altimas. Not cool, Emerald Aisle. Not cool.
So, as fate had it, I picked the 500X. And like all the best romance stories, our inauspicious beginning led to a quirky, odd pairing that neither one of us wanted to end. Well, at least I didn’t. You probably didn’t give a fuck.
But this is our story.
It’s no wonder that I didn’t want to pick the Fiat 500X. It’s a strange, unorthodox entry into the subcompact CUV space from a car company lacking identity on American shores. At a time when many Fiat dealers are rollingÂ back under the rooftops of their neighboring Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram-SRT-Plymouth-Godknowswhatelse stores, the brand desperately needs a volume seller, not a niche market car that has only sold 2,ooo units in a month one time since launching halfway through 2015.
Its stablemate, the Jeep Renegade, hasn’t been popular with writers around these parts, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s more a Jeep aestheticallyÂ than it is functionally, and the aforementioned aesthetics are almost comical in their attempts to convince you of their validity.Â Hey, look at me! I’m a Jeep! Really, I am!
But the 500X has none of that hype to live up to and no pseudo offroading capabilities toÂ prove. So what if you took that otherwise appealing content from the Renegade, rounded it off a bit, and made it more attractive to different segments of the population (such as women and boomers)?Â Well, you’d have the 500X â€”Â and a pretty compelling little car.
My first thought upon entering the cabin of the Fiat was, “Wow, this is much better than I expected.” Surprisingly, after a week with the 500X,Â I’m prepared to say that it hasÂ the best interior available in a new car south of $30,000. Not only does it look luxurious (my crappy iPhone photos notwithstanding), it also feels luxurious. Seating is comfortable and supportive. The dashboard keeps that Fiat design language from its little brother, the 500, with a metallic surface running itsÂ entire width. The steering wheel feelsÂ like pure money, with soft leather and several different steering modes that allow me to expendÂ as much or as little effort in dancing withÂ the ItalianÂ as I want.
At the center of the dash is FCA’s ubiquitous Uconnect screen. Oh, Uconnect, how I love you. Your intuitive nature, your bright screen, your menus … you’re just the bee’s knees. Uconnect alone is reason to select the 500X over other competitors in the segment.Â Everything about it just makes sense in the Fiat, and the user interface has just the right balance of touchscreen features and knobs. Syncing my iPhone 6S+ to Bluetooth isÂ quick and painless, and phone call audio quality isÂ acceptable.
However, the stereo system that the UconnectÂ operates is pure garbage, almost to the point of embarrassment. Any attempt to play music that’s bass and drum heavy (think Calvin Harris, etc.) comes through the speakersÂ sounding like a drunken Cookie Monster. Classical music comes through as tinny and lacking depth. No menu setting canÂ fix it.
For a car this petite, the backseat is vast. When I hopped in the backseat, I felt that I could easily sit there for a trip of any length without complaint. In fact, two normal-sized adults canÂ fit comfortably in the rear seats for long periods of time with no discomfort. Baby and child seats would also be no problem for the 500X. Unfortunately, a compromise that isÂ made to have this much passenger space.
You guessed it. The cargo area is smaller than my Fiesta’s. I couldn’t fit a 27-inch suitcase in it, either vertically or horizontally. Even my colleague’s smaller Rollaboard suitcase gave the 500X fits â€” I had to do some repositioning of my smallish bag and laptop case to make it fit. It’s probably fine for most grocery runs, but you’re going to have to take an UberXL to the airport if you’re taking the family to Disney World, because the 500X won’t do.
But what about the actual driving experience? Here’s the real shocker: the 500X is genuinely boisterous.
No, it’s not particularly fast in a straight line. Fiat claims a 0-60 time of just under 8Â seconds, and that feels about right to me. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder Tigershark motor, which utterly sucks in most other applications, isÂ more than adequate in the 500X. Fiat offers three different drive modes (Sport, Auto, and Traction+) on the 500X, selected with the turn of a dial on next to the gear selector. WhenÂ placed in Sport mode, the 500X immediately downshifts about three gears and becomes annoyingÂ raucous for daily driving. The auto mode is just fine for 95 percent of the time. However, the Sport modeÂ isÂ a lot of fun whenÂ pretending you’re Francesco Bernoulli on the highways between Detroit and Grand Rapids. Downshifts are quickÂ (if not smooth) and passing maneuvers are easily executed.
The transmission never wantedÂ to make its way into 9th gear â€” in fact, I wasn’t even entirely sure that it had a nine-speed until I double-checked it against the Fiat website. Even steady state cruising at 70 mphÂ in auto mode was typically done in eighth. Even so, highway driving is much more stable than cars of similar size.
The suspension is tuned to feel and drive a good deal sportier than other micro-utes. It’s more fun to drive than the Buick Encore, Chevrolet Trax or Nissan Juke, and it’s comparable to the Mazda CX-3. It manages to feel more solid than its stablemate, the Jeep Renegade, too, not only in the suspension geometry but alsoÂ in itsÂ general construction. Panel gaps are consistent, materials feel soft, and everything just works the way you’d want it to.
Well, except one thing.
Yeah, that’s ridiculous. But even that goofy horn sound fits into the overall charm of the 500X. It’s one of the few rental cars that I’ve been sad to return. It’s quirky, it’s cute, and it’s notÂ the manliest of cars to drive (cue the BB chorus of I DON’T CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK OF ME), but I’ll be damned if it isn’t one of the most fun little cars I’ve ever driven. If I were in the market for a subcompact CUV, it would be right at the top of the list.
But that’s a big “if,” isn’t it?
The problem with the 500X is that it’s hard to imagine anybody actually being in the market for it. The Little Fiat That Could is up against some of the heaviest hitters in the industry. Nearly every major manufacturer has a very good entry in this category, and the 500X doesn’t necessarily do anything thatÂ muchÂ better than the HR-V, Trax, Encore, Juke, or â€” every autowriter’s favorite â€” the CX-3. Once you realize that those minuscule sales numbers I referenced a bit earlier include fleet sales, the 500X becomes almost invisible in the American marketplace. I doubt that most Americans even know that Fiat offers some sort of crossover, and those that do will find very little reason to stop by the Fiat store â€” assuming they can find one.
So what does it cost? This is where it gets a bit tricky. The base model Fiat Pop FWD, with itsÂ 1.4-liter turbo four that you’ll eventually find under the hood of the Fiat 124 Spyder, is just over $20,000. Unfortunately, so many of the things that I loved about my rental â€” the leather-wrapped wheel, the stiffer sidewall-tires, the chocolate-brown interior â€” induce aÂ price premium.Â A Fiat 500X Lounge AWD optioned out like my rental? It’s a somewhat mind-boggling $30,055. I wish IÂ had the chance to drive the Pop base model to see if I would love it as much. If any of the fun of the Lounge model has found its way into the Pop, it makes sense to consider it as a Kia Soul competitor. But at thirty grand?! No. However, with all the struggles that Fiat is having moving metal lately, real transaction prices are likely to be around $2,000 under sticker.
I’ll miss you, 500X. Your little smile, your drive modes, the little touches that make you unique. I don’t know if I’ll ever be lucky enough to find you on the rental car lot again.
But we’ll always have Detroit.