2016 Fiat 500X Trekking Plus AWD Review
Tired of seeing the exact same car coming around the corner everywhere you go? Of course, there’s a lot to be said for buying a highly successful model. It’s often a sign of good design, better than average quality and a strong brand image, but bestsellers can often appear a bit generic in their attempt to appeal to the masses and tend to lack unique character from behind the wheel, both in interior styling and driving dynamics. There’s no chance of that with the new Fiat 500X.
As a backgrounder, Fiat first became part of the American road-scape in 1908, although due to poor sales the Italian brand left the two northernmost North American markets in 1983. That U.S./Canadian connection proved important to the Italian automaker’s future, however, starting with a $2 billion compensation payment made by General Motors after choosing to terminate a then five-year-old put option that gave Fiat Group ((IA) the right to sell itself to GM for fair market value, which was money enough for Fiat to invest in better product that has helped to turn the company’s fortunes around; prior to this it was burning through $1.9 billion per annum, which had totaled $14 billion in losses over the previous five years. Four years later in 2009, under the direction of Chieti, Italy-born (but, from the age of 14, Toronto, Canada-raised) CEO Sergio Marchionne, Fiat became a significant stakeholder in Chrysler group by purchasing 20 percent, after which its piece of the Big 3 automaker continued to grow until two years ago when it purchased the remaining 41.46 percent from the UAW’s VEBA Trust, a step that allowed the two automakers to fully merge and the current Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to form. The rest, as they say, is history.
While FCA has been celebrating its first ever number one position in the Marchionne’s second-home country, since the close of 2015, and impressive gains here in the U.S., certainly reasons to feel festive considering they looked to be on their deathbed seven years ago, Fiat brand sales had nothing to do with the automaker’s rise in popularity in either market. Rather, the Italian-U.S. company’s sales growth came from its various SUVs, Jeep’s newish Cherokee enjoying a 23.4-percent gain and the new Renegade adding 60,946 units to the final tally all on its own, whereas the manufacturer of FCA’s smallest cars actually lost significant ground.
Sales have been quite steady since its first full 12 months on the calendar, the Fiat brand total merely achieving 19,769 units during its partial 2011 re-launch year, but maintaining a solid 43,772 sales in 2012, 43,236 in 2013, 46,121 in 2014, and 42,410 for 2015. These numbers could be a lot worse, with Fiat achieving a much stronger result than Smart’s shockingly low 7,484 sales, while the Italian brand isn’t far behind key competitors Mini and Scion that managed 58,514 and 56,167 sales respectively last year. While Fiat will no doubt be upset that by losing eight-percent in total sales last year, Smart has got to be reeling after sales crashed by 28.4 percent during the same 12 months (ouch!). While Smart may want to rethink it’s entire brand strategy by entering the 500X’ market segment with a small crossover SUV of its own, Fiat appears to be finding its niche and at least maintaining a reasonable equilibrium on the sales charts, although it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine that Marchionne and company are hoping the new 500X will help the Italian brand catch up to its closest rivals during 2016.
The 500X arrives in a subcompact SUV market segment that grew by four models and 133.3 percent last year alone. The little Fiat arrived in May, following its Jeep Renegade counterpart by two months, while the Honda HR-V landed in June and the Mazda CX-3 in August. The new quartet upped the segment’s total numbers to nine, the entire category adding 188,622 new sales during calendar year 2015 and therefore reaching a record high of 330,136 compared to 141,514 in 2014. You’d think with such growth there’d be no losers, but the newcomers actually did some significant damage to a few longtime players, the original Nissan Juke dropping 30 percent despite a redesign for 2015 and Mini’s Countryman experiencing a downward spiral that left it 26.3 percent below last year’s total (it’s overall brand growth came from its new five-door hatchback). One of the biggest winners in 2015 was an old-timer, Buick’s Encore that experienced 38.1 percent growth to open up an even greater lead than it previously enjoyed, the new total being 67,549, while basically the same model in Chevy trim moved up to second in only its first full year, the Trax growing from 739 units to 63,030. A complete greenie came in third, Jeeps Renegade with 60,946 sales, while the new Honda HR-V achieved fourth with 41,969 deliveries. Mitsubishi’s Outlander Sport slipped to fifth despite growing its sales by 19 percent to 36,966 units, while Juke sales fell to 27,121 and the Countryman to 16,686. As for the CX-3, it certainly deserves better than its pathetic 6,406 unit showing, even with just five months of availability, so well just have to wait and see how Mazda buyers respond this year.
Overall, the 500X played a positive role in increasing the segment’s total auto sector penetration, and to be fair its final tally of 9,463 units is pretty good for just a little more than half a year on the market, boding well for a tight race between Fiat and Mini during 2016. FCA will certainly want to get a clear message out regarding just how good this very “exclusive” model is if it wants to quickly rebuild the Fiat brand here in the U.S. (word has it that Derek Zoolander, a.k.a. Ben Stiller, will be uttering inanities while striking Blue Steel poses for the TV/web ads, which should help; just so sad that David Bowie won’t be around to judge the runway walk-off – R.I.P.).
Just why the 500X hasn’t caught on as quickly as most others has much to do with Fiat’s brand image. It’s tough to gain traction in a market dominated by the very brands that, due to arguably building a better widget, shoved Fiat and many of its European contemporaries right off the North American continent back in the ’80s. The HR-V’s immediate success is a clear sign that the Japanese are still strong within the small vehicle market, although Jeep’s even more impressive results and GM’s incredible growth show that imports don’t dominate anymore. The Renegade’s strength could actually benefit 500X sales, as the latter fills a sportier more car-like void that FCA dealers can promote as an alternative right on the showroom floor, while the Italian model delivers better interior refinement, more features, and greater overall performance than the majority of challengers, not to mention best-in-class safety. As for style, I quite like the way the 500X looks.
Most important, I believe FCA has done an excellent job differentiating the 500X from the Jeep Renegade that shares the majority of its underpinnings. The Jeep has more upright styling that befits the 4×4-centric brand, plus a cheeky, fun-loving personality that’s helped it instantly win over its massive following. Compared to the Renegade the 500X offers a more sophisticated Euro look, pulling plenty of curved design cues from the 500, although it’s nowhere near as cute and cuddly as the Italian micro car.
Actually, in Trekking trim it looks downright tough. Like the wiry, short kid at school that every bully was too afraid to taunt because they knew he’d go down swinging and probably land a few good ones in the process. I wasn’t that kid, but I remember my dad’s sage advice to do likewise if ever I found myself in a fight. I did, the bigger guy getting a black eye and my face looking worse, but he never came after me again and neither did anyone else. Something else my dad taught me was that life isn’t fair so stop your whining and keep on pushing no matter what happens, yet more words of wisdom that have helped me to weather many storms including some very strong ones in this business of auto journalism. This is something Fiat will want to keep in mind as it keeps building excellent cars and now a superb subcompact SUV without get much recognition for it’s efforts.
You’ll understand what I’m talking about when you climb inside. The 500X offers a nicely laid out cabin that’s also extremely well finished with a high-quality premium-like soft-touch dash top that circles all the way around each corner to wrap underneath the instrument panel, bisecting the center stack before butting up against the steering column. The front door uppers are soft synthetic too, the inclusion of both pliable plastic surfaces very rare for this subcompact class. Thickly padded leatherette door inserts are only improved upon by the cushiest armrests I’ve ever felt, ultimately pampering for elbows and forearms. Additionally, truly upscale metallic detailing surrounds the primary gauges, center stack, doors, etcetera, with the lower console especially upscale looking as the entire surface area is covered with a metal-like treatment that really feels genuine.
Fiat covers most of the instrument panel in an attractive molded metallic gray composite, which is a nice backdrop for some of the best graphic displays and interfaces in the segment. It all starts with an impressive set of primary gauges featuring a high-resolution color TFT multi-information display at center, an even nicer infotainment touchscreen atop the center stack, glossy buttons underneath, a particularly attractive set of dual-zone auto HVAC controls below those, while Fiat even dresses up the USB and aux plug panel with a glossy piano black lacquered treatment. What’s more, all of the 500X’ switchgear is excellent, most notably the myriad buttons on the steering wheel, although the electromechanical parking brake toggle is beautifully detailed in chrome and the rotating driving mode selector dial just ahead of it on the lower console gets a textured rubberized rim, an aluminum ring around its top edge, and a glossy black and white backlit top. All of my tester’s luxuriant goodness received a dose of natural daytime light along with a moonlit glow at night from a dual-pane panoramic sunroof overhead, as well as LED ambient lighting. Without question this is the nicest interior in the mainstream volume branded subcompact SUV segment, targeting the higher end premium-like Buick Encore and Mini Countryman rather than the lower end Chevy Trax.
You’d expect to pay more for this high-end experience, which is certainly how Buick and Mini approach the market, but the base 500X starts at only $20,000 plus freight and dealer fees. That’s $785 more than the HR-V, but it’s $300 less than the Trax, making it very competitive. What’s more, its base window sticker is $2,750 less expensive than the Countryman and $4,065 lower than the Encore that it more closely resembles in refinement, features, and performance.
Right out of the box the 500X gets Fiat’s highly efficient yet amply powerful direct injected and turbocharged 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder that’s good for a very competitive 160-horsepower and downright stump-pulling 184 lb-ft of torque, pushed to the front wheels through a sporty six-speed manual gearbox. Compared to the Countryman’s anemic 121-horsepower 1.6-liter base engine and Encore’s 138-horsepower 1.4-liter four it’s no contest, the Countryman S requiring an additional $6,100 overtop the base 500X price if you want to beat its performance. But the 1.4 is merely the 500X’ base engine, my tester’s naturally aspirated 2.4-liter Tigershark MultiAir four boasting 180 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque (yes you read that right, it’s down 9 lb-ft), this engine standard with a class-leading nine-speed automatic transmission featuring manual-mode plus front- or optional all-wheel drive.
The 2.4 was quick off the line and, while the 500X is generally quite quiet, delivered a nice throaty growl at mid revs and a wonderfully sonorous song when winding up towards redline, a feature none of its competitors (save the Renegade) deliver as competently yet all performance enthusiasts appreciate, while the autobox was blissfully smooth with shifts that were certainly quick enough in default Auto mode. That said Fiat provides a Sport mode that enhances throttle response and keeps the engine revving right up to maximum when pushing hard on the throttle, at which point it will upshift on its own or you can use the gear lever just prior. Of course you can downshift the same way, or alternatively give the gas pedal a flick and the intelligent transmission will quickly drop a gear. The three-way Dynamic Control Selector includes a Traction + mode too (think “snow” mode) that enhances low-speed grip on slippery surfaces by allowing a little extra tire slippage.
There’s no eco mode, per se, but leave it in Auto and the as-tested 2.4/nine-speed AWD model is good for a claimed 21 mpg city, 30 highway and 24 combined, whereas the same engine/autobox combination with FWD gets an estimated 22 city, 31 highway 25 combined. If fuel economy is number one on your priority list the base 1.4 FWD manual is rated at 25 city, 34 highway and 28 combined, but I’m guessing it’s a hoot to drive as well. These numbers sit about mid-pack, which makes the 500X very competitive.
Along with the good fuel economy and abundant straight-line performance comes excellent handling. It really feels in its element cutting across a circuitous mountainside road, its reaction to steering input quick and confident, its stability at speed commendable, even over rough road surfaces, and balance of wheel travel and chassis stiffness ideal for combining spirited performance with comfortable daily driving. Its impressive driving dynamics don’t happen by accident, the 500X coming standard with a fully independent suspension plus stabilizer bars at both ends. This is a more expensive setup than the majority of its challengers that use rear trailing arm designs, the end result not only improving the 500X’ ride comfort and overall fun-factor, but also making it capable of maneuvering around potential accidents that others wouldn’t be able to avoid.
On this theme the little Fiat’s braking system delivers strong binding power thanks to ABS-enhanced discs at each corner along with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist, with active and passive safety features continue with electronic roll mitigation, traction and stability control, hill start assist, tire pressure monitoring with a display, a security alarm and an engine immobilizer, seven airbags including one for the driver’s knees, and more.
The “more” with my up-line tester included forward collision warning with autonomous braking and lane departure warning with autonomous lane keeping assist that came as part of the $2,600 Collection 2 package, which also includes rain-sensing wipers, auto high beams and a dual-pane sunroof overhead. When so equipped, the 500X is the only subcompact SUV to be named an IIHS Top Safety Pick + winner, making it the safest of all its competitors in a crash.
Are you starting to understand why it’s worth paying slightly more to own a 500X? Fiat goes a bit further, and in some ways a lot further than most brands to satisfy the wants and needs of would-be buyers, with base Pop trim incorporating all of the engine, suspension and safety benefits already noted, as well as halogen projector headlamps, DRLs, heatable and powered body-color side mirrors with integrated turn signals, chromed door handles, a body-color rooftop spoiler, chromed exhaust tips, a capless fuel filler, remote entry, speed-sensitive powered locks, an electromechanical parking brake, powered windows with auto up/down all-round, a body-color instrument panel, a tilt and telescoping multifunctional steering wheel, cruise control, a 3.5-inch black and white multi-information display, air conditioning, four-speaker AM/FM/CD/USB/AUX audio with a 3.0-inch display, USB and aux ports, 60/40 split rear seatbacks opening the cargo area up from 12.2 cubic feet when upright to 19.9 cubic feet when folded, plus a flat-folding front passenger seat that increases maximum cargo capacity to 32.1 cubic feet when flying solo.
Moving up to second-rung Easy trim (seriously, that’s what Fiat calls it) gives you the larger engine, the automatic and the option of AWD, while its standard menu grows to include 17-inch alloys, remote start, proximity sensing keyless access with pushbutton start, a premium-wrapped (pleather) multifunction steering wheel, leather-wrapped shift knob, the three-mode Dynamic Control Selector I noted earlier, illuminated vanity mirrors, Bluetooth hands-free with streaming audio, Uconnect 5.0-inch touchscreen infotainment, two additional stereo speakers, an additional remote USB port, a reversible, height-adjustable and removable cargo floor, plus more.
Trekking trim makes a unique set of 17-inch alloy wheels and tires standard, while adding auto on/off headlamps, cornering fog lamps, unique silver front and body-color rear fascias, dark satin-silver door handles, a satin-silver metallic instrument panel, premium cloth upholstery and the previously noted color MID, while a unique set of beefy 18-inch alloys is available.
My tester was in Trekking Plus trim which meant those 18-inch rims were standard and a whole host of other goodies too, such as a windshield wiper de-icer, overhead ambient lighting, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a heatable steering wheel, heatable front seats, dual-zone auto HVAC, a back-up camera, rear parking sonar, the Uconnect 6.5-inch infotainment upgrade with navigation, Sirius XM Traffic and TravelLink, HD radio, and premium audio with eight speakers plus a sub, a 12-way powered driver’s seat including four-way powered lumbar, leather upholstery, a cargo cover, blind spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert and more for $28,210. When adding the $1,900 needed for AWD plus the Collection 2 package mentioned earlier, and $1,000 for the Rosso Amore (red pearl) tri-coat paint, the final tally came to $33,705, and of course when adding freight and dealer fees the total popped it right into premium compact SUV territory, albeit this is where those larger utes start, not end up when loaded to my 500X tester’s full load of features. It’s thousands less than a fully equipped Mini Countryman too, while the Buick Encore matches the 500X in price although doesn’t deliver anywhere near the same level of performance or features.
While arguably offering better value than these near-premium rivals, the price of this fully featured 500X Trekking Plus, and even some of the model’s lesser trim levels, is another reason why the 500X isn’t the biggest seller in the segment. Certainly it starts out at a price most can afford, and is a great bargain when considering its four-wheel discs, independent suspension, strong performance and premium-like interior detailing, but add on options and its price escalates quickly. Still, if you can manage to resist checking off all the boxes it won’t cost you much more than a similarly equipped competitor and quite a bit less than the Countryman and Encore, while you’ll be getting a mini SUV that can go head-to-head with these almost luxe models. Just for its best-in-class crash safety alone the 500X should be considered, but its many other attributes will no doubt win those over who give it a chance. It impressed me, and those who read my reviews often know just how critical I can be when a car doesn’t live up to price-based expectations. The Fiat 500X does, and while there’s part of me that likes driving something a bit more on the exclusive side, there’s another part that would like to see this little Italian become a major hit. It certainly deserves it.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press; Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press; Copyright: American Auto Press.