2019 Fiat 500X first drive review: New engine, same problems

The Fiat 500X is a compact crossover that looks really good on paper. It comes with standard all-wheel drive, a robust infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, an optional suite of advanced driver-assistance tech and hey, it's pretty affordable, too. For 2019, the 500X gets a new, turbocharged engine that promises improvements in both power and fuel economy, and it helps make this little guy Fiat's most well-rounded offering yet.

But while the elevator pitch sounds great, it doesn't take long to discover the Fiat's shortcomings. And against a growing crop of fiercely competitive compact crossovers, even this updated 500X is harder to recommend than ever.

Puffing up a small car does not result in a particularly pretty SUV. In the same way that Mini's larger models look bulbous, so too does the Fiat 500X. The overall appearance is more dorky than quirky, and I don't like the way Fiat has incorporated body-colored squares into the center of the taillight housings as part of the 2019 model year updo. No, the 500X isn't quite as ugly as the ungainly 500L, but let's be honest, that's really just damning with faint praise.

The 500X stands relatively tall, but it's narrower and shorter in length than other subcompact crossovers. This means front passengers have plenty of headroom, but sit close together. The same goes for back-seat riders, who will also notice a lack of legroom. Cargo space is in short supply, as well; the 500X has less room for your luggage than just about every other subcompact crossover, with the exception of the dreadful little Ford EcoSport.

The cabin itself is hit or miss in terms of material quality. The Fiat's seats are comfortable and decently supportive, and I like the cushy, leather-trimmed armrests on the doors. The dashboard has a weird, rubbery, faux-soft-touch finish to it, but I think it's cool that Fiat matches the accent panel to the car's exterior color. The switchgear all looks and feels cheap, from the buttons on the center stack to the wiper and turn signal stalks on the steering column. Oh, speaking of, the Fiat 500X wins the award for having the cheapest-sounding turn signals of any new car, however nitpicky that criticism might be.

Thankfully, every 500X comes with a Fiat-skinned version of Chrysler's excellent Uconnect multimedia system, housed on a 7-inch touchscreen atop the dashboard. The colors and fonts are specific to Fiat's design language, but the easy-to-use Uconnect functionality is the same. And since both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, you can happily skip the $695 upcharge for embedded navigation.

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Fiat offers an abundance of driver assistance tech, too, though it's all locked into a $1,395 option package, even on the top-shelf Trekking Plus trim. Still, that upgrade gets you adaptive cruise control, automatic high-beams, blind-spot monitoring, forward collision warning, lane departure warning and automatic windshield wipers, so it's money well spent.

A big change for 2019 is what's under the hood: every 500X gets a new, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine. The 1.3-liter I4 is smaller than both the 1.4-liter turbo and 2.4-liter naturally aspirated powerplants from last year's 500X, but packs more power where it counts. The Fiat's 177 horsepower at 5,500 rpm is about average, but it's the 210 pound-feet of torque at 2,200 rpm that really seals the deal. The 1.3T provides plenty of motivation for smoothly pulling away from stoplights, and it means you don't have to rev the hell out of this motor to summon extra oomph for scooting past slow-moving Priuses around town.

Unfortunately, the nine-speed automatic gearbox continues to be a sore spot. The transmission never seems to know where it wants to settle, constantly upshifting for the sake of fuel economy, and then immediately having to step down several gears when extra power is demanded. You can mitigate this a little bit by switching the 500X into its Sport drive setting, as the transmission is more willing to hold a gear for longer periods of time in this mode. But the Sport programming isn't ideal for everyday driving. In some ways, it actually makes things worse.

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The 500X's steering is already quite heavy in its standard tune, and Sport mode amplifies this. It isn't heavy in a good way, either -- selecting Sport adds resistance to the wheel's action, but doesn't actually make the 500X more willing to turn in. Furthermore, this added sensation of heft isn't matched with any sense of feedback; no matter the drive mode, the steering is really numb.

On the lovely stretches of California's Pacific Coast Highway north of Malibu, you can feel every little bump and road imperfection through the chassis. The upsized 18-inch wheels of my Trekking-spec test car have 215/55-series tires with plenty of sidewall, so it really is the suspension tuning itself that's the problem here. And while the tradeoff for a brittle ride is often sharp handling on winding roads, the 500X falls apart there, too.

Fiat representatives tell me the fun-to-drive factor is what sets the 500X apart from other crossovers. Problem is, the 500X isn't fun to drive at all. This car truly hates being pushed through corners, with noticeable body roll and a general lack of composure accompanying the vague steering and harsh ride.

At least the 2019 500X is more efficient than before, its 1.3T engine earning EPA-estimated fuel economy ratings of 24 miles per gallon city, 30 mpg highway and 26 mpg combined. Those are increases of 3, 1 and 2, respectively, over the 2018 500X with the 2.4-liter engine and all-wheel drive. But even so, the 500X offers mid-pack efficiency among subcompact SUVs.

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I'd be willing to overlook some of these problems if the 500X was priced below the competition, but once again, Fiat disappoints. The 2019 500X starts at $24,720 (excluding destination) for a standard Pop model, which is more expensive than the base, all-wheel drive versions the Honda HR-V, Hyundai Kona and Mazda CX-3. A fully loaded 500X Trekking Plus comes in around $33,000, and again, similarly equipped versions of the aforementioned competitors cost several thousand dollars less. On top of that, they all have similar tech, better interiors and far superior on-road dynamics. Heck, even the Fiat's platform mate, the Jeep Renegade, is less expensive in most trims.

So it's no wonder that Fiat has moved fewer than 1,500 500X models through June of this year, while over that same timeframe, Honda sold roughly 48,000 HR-Vs. The new turbo engine makes the 2019 500X more competitive than before, but with an overall package so generally meh, I still can't imagine buying one over anything else at this price point.

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