Fiat is marketing its new crossover as bigger, more powerful, and ready for action.
If you caught Fiat’s Super Bowl ad for the 500X, it relies heavily on sex appeal. The implication: that the 500X is more … erm … “excited” than the 500. So I was intrigued when a rental car branch recently told me the only SUV they had left was the 2016 Fiat 500X.
My rental, an Easy-trimmed 500X, exists on the second rung up from the base Pop trim, yet comes with all the features I require in a short-term, contract-bound, automotive affair: audio controls on the steering wheel, Bluetooth, and some power options. It starts at $24,635 with all-wheel drive and powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine pumping out a breathtaking180 horsepower.
I’m always excited to drive something new and unique. When else would I get the chance to drive a Fiat? So the 500X was my daily driver for three days, which included a mix of highway and suburban driving, tight parking situations, and rush-hour traffic in downtown Boston.
They say you need to make deposits before you can make a withdrawal, so here goes: The 500X is not the worst car I’ve ever driven, because I’ve driven a Dodge Dart. It didn’t have the horrible Chrysler “Rotary Dial” shifter. Also, it had an adequate amount of cup holders and cargo space.
Alright, it’s time, Fiat fans. We’re going to break her down before we can build her back up. This might get rough.
I needed a larger rental car to take some customers and co-workers out (neither of my ownvehicles are passenger friendly). When I reserved an SUV, my expectation was one of the usual suspects: Explorer, Durango, or one of the 4Runners I’ve seen popping up in rental fleets. I’ve never driven a Fiat before, and it seemed to have enough space for grown men, so why not?
Well, here’s why not.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first.
The 500X is really slow. I get it — no one is going to buy a 500X to take to the track, but it’s a lot of car for that little four banger to lug around. It’s really ugly, though beauty is in the eye of the beholder and some might consider it cute. And it’s definitely a Chrysler underneath all its hip European styling.
We need to talk about the transmission.
As a loyal stick shift driver, I find it difficult to acclimate to most automatics. I easily become irritated (to say the least) when they decide to shift illogically and erratically. Well, you can only imagine my frustration when I found out this was Chrysler’s maligned ZF-sourced nine-speed automatic. What does that mean to you, the driver? It means that you’re never in the proper gear for power. The slightest amount of input through the skinny pedal will cause a downshift, or two. Bark told me he heard it was hard to get it into ninth gear. I thought that sounded like a challenge. What I found out was that getting it into ninth wasn’t the problem. Keeping this car in any single gear for more than a minute is a test for your right foot. Just cruising on the highway you might be in eighth, to fourth, to seventh, to ninth, back to sixth — it’s madness.
Which brings us to my next source of frustration: the interior.
Although the headlights weren’t on, the car took it upon itself to dim and brighten the gauges. Because it was early evening, they were constantly flashing bright, dim, bright, dim, bright, dim. Or maybe it was synchronized with the shift pattern. Apparently this is a common issue. After some poking around online, I found forum members trying to figure out ways to trick the sensor so the gauges would just stay lit. This is another item I’d prefer to control myself as the driver.
The 500X did come equipped with Bluetooth streaming audio, but I couldn’t easily pair it with my Android or iPhone. I gave up and tried the USB port instead since I had to charge my phone anyway. The problem is the car can’t distinguish between audio files, videos, and photos. First, I had to wait about 10 minutes every time I got in the car for it to go through the contents of my phone. Then, as it was cycling through all the files, I’d realize that I was driving in silence. The car would get an error trying to play one of my photos, or I’d realize that it was playing the audio from a video that was on my phone. This was excruciatingly annoying. If there’s a way to remedy this, it was not made clear in the three days I spent with the car.
Finally, let’s face it, these cars aren’t targeted to larger drivers. I’m about 5’2″ and figured I’m the size of the target customer, yet I had a lot of trouble reaching everything. The turn signal stalk was so far forward that I thought the high beams had been left on. I found myself constantly pulling it back just in case. Recently, I had a Dodge Durango rental for a couple of days, and the turn signal situation was similar. I could barely keep my thumb on the steering wheel and reach the turn signal. Additionally, with the seat moved far enough forward for my short legs to reach the pedals, it was uncomfortable for me to reach the cup holders. I had to bend my arm back in an awkward way and carefully bring it forward so I didn’t dump my coffee out in the process. It just didn’t seem well suited for someone with my build.
But wait, there’s more!
Fiat fans, if you’re still reading, this part is for you. At last, on my third and last day with what we had named The Ugly Blue Bubble, the Fiat shined for a glimmering moment! I was picking up my coworkers in downtown Boston to take them to the airport. In true Boston fashion, traffic was a nightmare. Under 20 miles per hour and in rush hour, the Fiat was fantastic. My team had spent the day walking around and exploring Boston, so I had to find them in the North End. After accidentally turning down a road that closes down during the day, I maneuvered backwards down a one-way street and into a spot to pick them up. Once we were on our way, the Fiat filtered through traffic with ease. Some aggressive driving was necessary, and we were cutting off other cars like pros. Blind spots weren’t a problem, as the Fiat’s rump offers good visibility through its hatch. Space was decent inside the cabin, and yet we were still narrow enough to squeeze into tight parking spaces.
Despite some initial setbacks, I will give the Fiat 500X some credit. In the right situations, this could be the perfect car for some. Boston has inclement weather, rough roads, horrible traffic congestion, and a lot of people. A compact “SUV” with all-wheel drive, room for passengers and cargo, that’s good on gas and easy to park in tight spaces is ideal for the northeastern city. However, if you do a lot of highway driving with a heavy foot, you probably should consider something with fewer gears and more cylinders.
[Images: © 2016 Rebecca Turrell/The Truth About Cars]