Fiat magnifies utility and comfort in 500X compact SUV

Fiat's cute little 500 model is big on style but short on space, so now we have the 500X, a compact SUV that delivers on cargo and cabin room while offering a surprisingly good ride.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
6 min read

Nine gears, 180 horsepower and a dial on the console that lets me set steering, throttle and gearbox to sport mode, all packaged in a short wheelbase hatchback I'm driving along steep, twisty southern California mountain roads. That formula sounds promising for automotive enjoyment, and the 2016 Fiat 500X delivers for the most part, although I'm mostly taken with this new compact SUV's comfort and well-tuned running gear.

Fiat introduced this extension of the 500 model line-up at the Paris auto show last year, but given the underwhelming 500L , my expectations for the all-new 500X were diminished. When I got behind the wheel at a Fiat-sponsored event, however, the 500X showed well-crafted capability and utility, with enough power to satisfy most drivers.

2016 Fiat 500X
Fiat introduces its new 500X model in front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive formats. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Unlike the 500L, the 500X isn't merely trying to be a larger version of Fiat's 500 model . The 500X and 500L share similar dimensions, both coming in more than 2 feet longer than the 500, but the 500X comes out on a new platform shared with the Jeep Renegade . With markets in over 100 countries, Fiat will offer the 500X in front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive.

The base model for the US, in Pop trim, comes with Fiat's 1.4-liter turbocharged MultiAir four-cylinder engine, and either a six speed manual or optional nine speed automatic transmissions. That engine produces 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. All other trims, Easy, Trekking, Lounge and Trekking Plus, come with a 2.4-liter four cylinder engine from Chrysler's Tigershark line and the nine speed automatic. This bigger, non-turbo engine makes 180 horsepower and 175 pound-feet of torque.

Fiat expects 40 percent of its 500X sales to be the all-wheel-drive model, but during a presentation before the drive, Matt Davis, head of Fiat product marketing, said that the all-wheel-drive system was designed for on-road confidence. That means Fiat is not intending the 500X to be any kind of off-roader. My ride for the day happened to be a front-wheel-drive version, good enough as the all-wheel-drive system wouldn't come into play on these bone dry roads.

Fiat in fine form with the 500X compact SUV (pictures)

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Automatic, Sport or Traction

Walking around the car, I hear the 2.4-liter clicking along, not a pleasant sound, but Fiat engineered the 500X well enough that the noise disappears in the cabin. I won't impress passerby with a mighty roar but I'll be riding in quiet comfort. The Fiat Dynamic Select dial on the console lets me twist it to choose Automatic, Sport and Traction programs, each affecting the electric power steering system, throttle sensitivity, transmission shift points and the electronic stability program.

Oddly, the three-hole instrument cluster in front of me shows analog speed on the left, analog tach on the right and a monochrome display in the middle I can set to trip, audio or a digital speed read-out. When I set the car to Sport, that display changes to a G-meter, pretty ambitious for the little 500X.

Noting that the 500X lacked a scorpion emblem , I set out for a sight-seeing tour rather than white-knuckle canyon carving. In Automatic mode, the transmission was slow to downshift when I floored it, letting the engine wind up to an audible groan, but the throttle response felt appropriate when trundling through traffic on city streets. The steering response felt direct enough and the ride quality, enhanced by the cabin sound deadening, hit the Goldilocks zone, not too hard, not too soft.

2016 Fiat 500X
During a drive event in southern California, the Fiat 500X showed its quality with a comfortable, quiet ride. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Flipping it to Sport mode, the behavioral change is obvious as the car exhibits a surge of power due to the new throttle mapping and the steering tightens up. I kept in Sport for all the mountain driving and was more than satisfied with how well the 500X responded. The transmission seems to lock out its highest gears, helping the engine keep the power up at the wheels. I floored it from a stop, just to beat some traffic, honestly, and the front tires light up a bit, slipping grip with all attendant sound.

The fixed suspension, with independent components front and rear, strikes a perfect balance between comfort and first handling. It neatly absorbs bumps, settling back to business immediately afterwards. In one corner I even feel a little bit of rotation, behavior typically found in hot hatchbacks. The 500X may not be a demon of the compact SUV set, but its solid bones show its potential.

Mostly I'm impressed by the tight and well-tuned feel of the steering and suspension. There's quality here that often evades cars in the $20k to $30k range, and shows Fiat wasn't cutting corners in the engineering.

The nine-speed automatic sounds like a whole lot of gears, but Fiat parent company FCA has made this technology a hallmark, spreading it copiously in models from other brands such as Chrysler and Dodge. Once or twice on my drive, the transmission didn't hit precisely the power gear I wanted, but that is often the case with automatics programmed for the highest fuel economy.

UConnect, I connect

On the drive, I tried out the 500X's UConnect head unit, the mid-tier system available in the line-up sporting a 5-inch touchscreen. The display was on the small side, but it doesn't have to contend with navigation -- just audio, trip data and the phone system. Plugging my iPhone into one of the car's two USB ports, I got a simple and responsive music library interface on the screen. Bluetooth streaming, FM, AM and satellite radio also counted among the audio sources.

2016 Fiat 500X
A monochrome display fills the center port in the instrument cluster, and shows a g-meter in Sport model. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

An intriguing Apps button merely brought up time and temperature, but a Fiat spokesperson told me that a few audio apps, such as Pandora, would be added sometime after the 500X hits showrooms.

In Pop trim, the 500X only gets a 3.5-inch screen and lacks Bluetooth streaming audio, which seems like a ploy to move buyers up to higher trim levels. Higher trim levels can be optioned up with UConnect's navigation head unit, which includes a 6.5-inch display. A Beats audio system, with a subwoofer and eight speakers, is also available.

Fiat ups the tech ante with set of driver assistance features impressive for the segment. A rear-view camera with trajectory lines comes standard above the base trim, and Fiat makes blind spot monitoring, lane departure prevention and automatic forward collision braking available.

A pricey competitor

The exterior styling of the 2016 Fiat 500X certainly evokes its smaller sibling, and Fiat seems to be looking for marketing bang based on the reasonable success of the earlier model. Seating space and headroom felt quite roomy, and the 18.5 cubic feet of cargo space is ample for a compact SUV.

The power delivery was good from the 2.4-liter driveline, and the handling and ride quality even better. Fiat had one of the Pop trim 1.4-liter cars on hand with a manual transmission, so I took a spin in it. I didn't want for power while cruising Los Angeles-area streets in the turbo model, and I got to enjoy a session of manual shifting. The fuel economy from this smaller engine may even rate a little better, although Fiat has not released even estimated EPA figures yet.

The only reason I can figure that the 1.4-liter engine is only available at the lowest trim is that it can't handle the all-wheel-drive system, something Fiat expects will distinguish the 500X and so makes available on the majority of the trim range. Another strike against the 500X in Pop trim is the inability to option up the cabin electronics, and the lack of built-in Bluetooth audio streaming.

In its mid-trim incarnations, the 500X comes very nicely equipped and offers an impressive set of driver assistance features, but at $25k-plus, it also gets very pricey for the compact SUV segment.

2016 Fiat 500X
The Fiat 500X may not be a bushwacker, but it makes a fine and comfortable commuter and road-tripper with Italian style. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

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