Friday, April 24, 2015

2016 Fiat 500X

Advertisements for small crossovers soon will be flooding the airwaves, trying to get shoppers' attention. The subcompact crossover trend started with the Nissan Juke, but it's catching on with Buick's Encore, Chevrolet's Trax and Jeep's Renegade. The upcoming Honda HR-V will be leading the next wave, but Fiat hopes its stylish 500X will steal some of the spotlight.

I drove one of the new Italian imports (yes, it's made in Melfi, Italy) earlier this week through Southern California on city streets, highways and for most of the time on extremely twisty mountain roads. It's an all-around stunner that will surprise shoppers who are likely unaware of this still-new brand in the U.S.

 The buzz may be around how small these new utes are, but on the road the 500X feels like an exceptionally substantial car. Its wide track and low center of gravity help give drivers confidence navigating tight turns like the canyon roads that California offered. In fact, those turns were likely more severe than what most locals probably deal with daily, and the 500X carved them better than expected.

The handling stands out and steering is responsive, although when going from one tight turn right into another I wished the steering wheel were a little smaller. My drive through the mountains was in a front-wheel-drive 500X, which made the crisp handling even more impressive.

Overall, the ride was comfortable and the suspension handled road imperfections well. The cabin is quiet on various surfaces. The suspension doesn't have much travel, though, so passengers will feel jolts from bumps and dips in the road. It's cushioned well through comfortable seats, but in a car like this, Fiat could have dialed it back for those who carve a few less canyons and want to be comfortable in their daily driving.

Powering most of the 500X lineup is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine teamed to a nine-speed automatic transmission. The entry-level Pop trim comes with a six-speed manual and less powerful 160-hp, turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, but the company expects only 5 percent of shoppers to opt for that model.

The 2.4-liter puts out 180 horsepower and 175 pounds-feet of torque, which is plenty of power for a vehicle this size. The power is ample in both the front-wheel-drive model and the all-wheel-drive version, which I tested in Los Angeles, but the only issue is getting it at the right time through the finicky nine-speed transmission. We noted the same nine-speed transmission issues in our long-term Jeep Cherokee, but in the 500X, they were much less severe.

 In low-speed stop-and-go traffic, my co-driver and I both noted the transmission hunting for the right gear too often, and when trying to get up to speed to pass, the transmission takes a bit too long to downshift for my liking.

However, neither the somewhat stiff ride nor the transmission's temperament will likely be noticed by a majority of shoppers in this class, and they'll wind up with a daily driver they enjoy.

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