Growing up in rural Newfoundland, two brothers, a few years younger than me, lived a couple of communities away. Twins, but not identical ones. Fraternal. While they shared the same DNA from their bus driver dad and hard working mom, they looked – and often acted – very differently.
The FIAT 500X reminded me of these two guys. Styled in Italy, it nevertheless shares the large part of its platform and drivetrain with the designed-in-the-US, Easter-egg laden Jeep Renegade. Both are built at the FIAT plant in Melfi, Italy. Like fraternal twins, they share a lot of DNA – but their personalities are not the same.
Buyers get a choice of engines in the 500X, depending on the trim level they select. Entry level models are motivated by a 1.4L MultiAir turbo four cylinder churning out 160hp and 184lb/ft of torque. This engine is lashed to a row-your-own six speed manual and front wheel drive, the sole choice of transmission and driven wheels with this engine.
Our tested was a loaded Trekking model with a larger four cylinder 2.4L Tigershark engine which, to the dismay of children and child-like adults, sadly features neither actual tigers nor sharks. This naturally aspirated mill increases horsepower by 20 compared to the 1.4L but, mind-bendingly, torque drops by nine to 175lb/ft. This larger engine is available only with a nine-speed automatic.
It is this nine-speed transmission which has drawn some rebukes in the Renegade. Occasional odd downshift patterns on highway trips and an stubborn manual gate dampen the otherwise appealing Jeep. When the engine room calls for more power, the nine speed box would sometimes confuse itself searching for the right gear. Nine to five should be a work shift, not a down shift.
Imagine our surprise then, when the 500X exhibited few of these traits with the transmission acting logically in the majority of driving situations. Fraternal twins, these two: same DNA, acting completely different.
The high-zoot Trekking model came equipped with AWD and a Drive Selector button on the console between the front seats. Labelled with three different modes – Auto, Traction+, and Sport – the AWD system is designed to send up to 50 percent of its torque to the rear wheels. In Traction+, throttle response is notably blunted and an arcade style graphic appears in the dashboard to graphically show traction being sent astern. Sport mode seemed to sharpen throttle response while displaying a jaunty checkered flag on the centre screen.
FIAT’s nub of a button for the electronic parking brake is down there with the Drive Selector as well. This information will come in handy as drivers will be reaching for it every single time they set off on a journey. That’s because the 500X sees fit to automatically engage the parking brake the instant its driver shifts the transmission into Park. Releasing the handbrake every time you shift out of Park takes some getting used to; the neighbours will wonder why you’re stationary and madly revving your new 500X like a frustrated Tony Stewart whose pit stop is taking too long.
Speaking of the dashboard, it’s great that FIAT is not stubbornly holding on to a single interior design language, such as MINI has tried to employ with its dinner-plate sized centre screen. The smaller 500 has a cinnamon bun of a gauge cluster that must be studied like tax forms and, mercifully, this style does not make an appearance in the 500X. Three round dials greet the driver: analog speedo (in FIAT’s signature 10-30-50… notation) on the left, analog tach on the right, and a programmable TFT screen dead centre. It’s worth noting the analog speedometer because, driving east during a spectacular sunset, the screen washed out badly, making the digital speed reading disappear completely. This strong over-the-shoulder sunlight only happened once, so we’re chalking this up to a rare perfect storm of light angle and intensity. The infotainment touch screen in the middle of the dashboard had no such issues in identical conditions, featuring FCA’s easy-to-use and quick-to-respond uConnect system.
The interior is a good place in which to spend time, with enough head and leg room for this 6’6” author. Memory settings for the driver seat would be helpful. FCA chooses to employ its pleasantly-plump corporate steering wheel in the 500X, peppered with buttons for audio and cruise. The tilt wheel helps drivers of all sizes find a good driving position, even if the up/down action of the mechanism does sound and feel like its moving though Florida beach sand.
Fuel economy was blunted by Canada’s deploringly famous winter conditions and snow tires with tread blocks resembling Himalayan peaks. Considering this, 11.4L/100km (calculated, 11.1L/100km by the dashboard computer) in mixed city and highway driving is within the ballpark of reason; Natural Resources Canada rates the Tigershark AWD at 11.0L/100km city, 7.9L/100km highway.
Finished in a great shade of Rosso Perla ($995), the FIAT 500X Trekking AWD rang the bell at a stiff-for-a-small-SUV $40,835 including destination and $7800 worth of options such as navigation, dual pane sunroof, and a Beats branded audio system. Our recommendation? Sample the manual transmission, front wheel drive Trekking model with the 1.4L MultiAir engine while skipping superfluous options such as the glass roof and bass-laden stereo. You’ll still get the unique styling and slightly jacked up look of the Trekking trim while saving nearly ten grand. Budget for a a set of capable winter tires and a front-drive 500X will get most drivers through the snowy months with aplomb.
Like the two brothers, this FIAT differs greatly from its fraternal Jeep twin even though it shares a great deal of DNA. In this instance, we definitely choose the sibling who spent a few months in Italy learning a foreign language and returning home with his own style.
Selling Points: Small SUV in a sharp Italian suit, attractive yet functional interior.
Deal Breakers: Could be better on fuel, gets pricey with options.
The Bottom Line: A stylish alternative which makes sense closer to $30,000 than $40,000.