Friday, March 25, 2016

Tested: 2016 Fiat 500X

Attractive, capable and Italian. But can it adventure? Yes.

As a 26 year-old millennial with an insane craving for the outdoors, it’s become a tad tricky to find new cars suitable for a replacement of my aging (yet still amazing) Saab station wagon. They’re either too boring, not practical enough for my taste, or just too expensive. Now more than ever, is the “will this vehicle fit all of my outdoor gear?” becoming a more priority in car shopping.

Enter, Fiat's 2016 500X. 

Based loosely on a platform shared with Jeep’s new Renegade, the 500X is marketed as the four-door, all-wheel-drive, compact crossover variant of the regular 500. How’d the 500X come to be? Take Fiat’s tiny two-door 500 micro car, throw it some granola, an Eddie Bauer flannel, and pair of rugged hiking boots, and the result you get a very capable ride for those nature geeks looking for something besides the typical Subaru Impreza or Crosstrek.

Power comes from a 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder that squeezes out 180 horsepower and nearly the same amount of torque. It’s engine even gets a mysterious name; Tigershark. Power was what I’d expected from a car this size, not too much and not too little. The car didn't feel laggy at all when catching up in highway traffic or climbing a mountain pass.

A nine-speed, yes count that right, automatic drives power to all four-wheels in AWD trims. Crazy to think that my daily driver back home, has a four gears and now this Fiat I’m piloting through Colorado has five more. My main wish with the powertrain, was that this auto had paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel for uphill/downhill driving, rather than by slapping the center-console mounted gear shifter to the left and tapping it up and down for manual shifting. Sadly, if you wan’t a third pedal, there’s a six-speed manual offered in the base, front-wheel-drive Pop model.

On the plus side, the more gears the better in terms of efficiency. At 70mph, I was sitting at just below 1,500 RPM in 8th gear. Fuel economy is a crucial make-it-or-break it for me. If I’m going to use this to commute hours to work and for weekend getaways getting lost in nature, it better be somewhat green. Good news, is the 500X is. I was able to reach 28mpg combined on the 460 miles spent on highways, around-town driving and on steep, high-altitude mountain passes. Ride quality felt solid. A car this size and class isn’t going to have the fully smooth, bump-absorbing ride you’d find in say a luxury crossover or car, but the little Fiat soaked up what it could and wasn’t thrown all over the place when imperfections in the road or potholes appeared. Plus, I wouldn’t want a dead-calm ride if I were taking this car off-road anywhere, that hopping around in your seat as you meander down a dirty two-track road or a fresh snowy parking lot adds to the pizzazz and camaraderie of the trip.

Another must-have feature? All-wheel-drive. That's a mandatory for me and my active lifestyle. If I’m spending the money on a car, it has to have all-wheel or selectable four-wheel-drive. I do too much driving in the snow, mud, on gravel surfaces, and in forests for my array of outdoor recreational activities. The 500X in this car is as solid as the towering lodgepole pines I drove alongside in Colorado this past weekend. Not once did I get stuck in treacherous winter storm conditions going over the white-knuckle inducing Berthoud Pass. Foot-deep pockets of slippery mud? No problem at all. I’ve driven a vast range of new vehicles over the past few years and while some AWD systems are no-brainer perfect, others leave me lacking confidence. Fiat did well with the 500X’s, constantly feeling capable in deep snow and ice. There’s a knob on the center console that gives you three drive modes: Sport, Auto and Traction+. Traction+ mode maximizes of course, traction, appropriately diverting power to the front and or rear wheels depending on the circumstance. 
The transmission keeps gears from shifting too soon to allow for continued spin of the wheels if need be. Sport mode tightens up feedback in the 500X’s steering, wakes up the throttle response and quickens shift points for spirited driving. Coming back into Denver on warm, dry roads, the 500x was a blast to drive in Sport mode. Not as adrenaline-pumping as it’s younger brothers, the 500 Abarth or 500 Turbo (both of which I’ve driven and think they’re fantastic in my boy-racer opinion), but fun enough to celebrate and make you smile once you get back on paved roads after a spontaneous epic adventure in the backcountry. Again, flappy-paddle shifters behind the steering wheel or a true-manual would make that smile even more grandioso.

Inside and out, the 500x looks Italian. My ‘Rosso Amore’ tri-coat red (a $1,000 option) was a sleek, sharp looking car. The 500X joins the cast of other uniquely styled five-seat compact crossovers I adore like the Nissan Juke, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport along with Mini’s Countryman and Paceman. Styling has to pop and stand out, which is where the 500X holds the crown. I’m glad it shares similar styling cues with the smaller 500, particularly in the front. Black plastic moldings all around which I appreciate for the loading and unloading of ski equipment and off-pavement driving, and an impressive amount of ground clearance that give the Italian some genuine, off-road pedigree. 
The interior is cool, modern, and as a few passengers pointed out- fancy. Black leather seats with Fiat stitching behind a painted dashboard that looks robbed from an art gallery in Turin. The air conditioning vents and parts of the dashboard near the climate controls are embezzled with a metal-like trim, for a touch of class. It’s a quiet, plush cabin, and I felt alarmingly comfortable, even being 6’2. I was easily able to connect my iPod and sync my Samsung Galaxy via Bluetooth for phone calls and streaming. Another praise where Fiat gets a high-five? It's HVAC controls. All knobs and buttons. Thank you!
Cargo capacity is another key deal-breaker for me. Will it fit a kayak inside? Will it fit a pair of skis or all of my backpacking and camping gear? With the part of the 40/60 rear-seat folded down I could easily fit my cherished 180cm downhill skis, though the tips creeped a bit onto the armrest between the front two-seats. Fold down both rear seat and the 500X offers up a welcoming 50 cubic feet of cargo room. Plenty of space for an outing to Winter Park to ski the infamous, lovely Mary Jane. Oh she’s a fine one.

This particular 500X I had was the Lounge AWD model which starts at $27,100 MSRP, fully stickered at just over $29,000 with the optional heated leather seats, heated leather-wrapped steering wheel, plus my favorite, FCA's brilliant easy-to-use Uconnect infotainment system with a 6.5-inch touch-screen and navigation. You also get a few other advanced safety features like blind-spot warning lights that flash in the Fiat's  side mirrors, a back-up camera with reverse sensors, and rear cross-path monitoring that alerts you when you’re backing up say in a parking lot, and a car is approaching from either side. The later was super helpful when backing out of the crowded lot of walking skiers and snowboarders at the bottom of Winter Park. Visibility isn’t horrible, though thick, protruding A-pillars made curvy roads a bit nerve-racking.

So would I buy one? Yes, I’d when cross-shopping between a few Subarus and the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, which wowed me on a recent trip through Utah's national parks, I'd surely consider buying a Fiat 500X. I'll keep an eye on the used car market.  Desired model? This, in black, and with a ski carrier or cargo box on top. That’ll give it a healthy dosage of Colorado swagger. Well done, Fiat, bravo. Now please excuse me as I cue up the Ocean’s 12 (yes 12, way underrated) movie soundtrack on my iPod and blast through the Rockies of while this song triumphantly plays.

Adventure Score | 2016 Fiat 500x
Fuel economy: A
Powertrain: B
Interior quality: A
Cargo room for gear: B+
Roof rack factor: optional side rails free and adjustable crossbars
Styling: A+
Fun to drive: A
Outdoor swagger: B+
Off-road prowess: B+
Infotainment setup: A+
Value: B+
Staring MSRP: $19,995 for front-wheel-drive/$23,890 for all-wheel-drive