Review: 2016 Fiat 500X Easy

We take another look at Fiat\'s subcompact crossover.

It has been a year since we first drove Fiat's new entry-level crossover. Managing Editor Drew Johnson found it fun and nimble on the back roads, but lacking a bit in around-town comfort.

When Fiat offered to loan us one for a week to get some more real-world experience, we gladly accepted. Is the bloom off the rose, or is the 500X still a charmer in the twisties? Read on to find out.

What is it?The 500X is a subcompact crossover. Essentially, you take a Fiat 500 and make it taller, longer and wider and then throw in some all-wheel-drive capability, and voila--Fiat 500X.

While that's a massive oversimplification, it's a formula that holds up when you look at it. From the outside, it resembles a 500 that has been over-inflated by about 50 PSI.

Like the body, the engine offerings have also been appropriately up-sized. Two four-cylinder engines are available--a 1.4L MultiAir turbo and a 2.4L naturally aspirated TigerShark. The former is available exclusively with front-wheel-drive and a manual transmission. The latter can only be optioned with an automatic, but it also allows for the selection of all-wheel drive.

Our tester was equipped with the 2.4L TigerShark. It makes 180 horsepower at 6,400 RPM and 175lb-ft of torque at 3,900 RPM. This is considered the premium engine for the 500X, and thus has a higher horsepower rating than the 1.4L MultiAir despite being down on torque. The TigerShark is available on every 500X trim, while the MultiAir is exclusive to the base Pop.

Our Easy model represents the first rung up the ladder from the Pop. Equipped with the nine-speed transmission and front-wheel-drive, this configuration boasts one of the lowest curb weights for an automatic-equipped 500X--an advantage that should pay dividends when the roads get twisty.

What's it up against?The Fiat 500X is intended to compete with the likes of the Honda HR-V, the Mazda CX-3, the Chevy Trax and the Buick Encore and the Jeep Renegade, among others.

While they are competitors on paper, the 500X and the Renegade share both an underlying architecture and an assembly location. While they differ in equipment offerings, they're fundamentally very alike.

How does it look?Fiat says the 500X is supposed to appeal to an alternative, style-oriented crowd. While this may be interpreted as Fiat's way of subduing expectations regarding the 500X's sales success, the past year has proven that the small crossover is right at home here in the States. It's a bright spot in a lineup suffering from a lack of trucklets.

While its Jeep sibling is clearly going for the so-ugly-it's-cute angle, Fiat's execution of the concept is far less polarizing. Its lines are clean and conventional, with everything coming together cohesively and purposefully. While the front end is a bit bug-eyed thanks to those large, round headlamps, it's not off-putting. Unlike the 500L, which is nothing short of an aesthetic disaster, the 500X is charming from the get-go.

And the inside?While the outside may exude Italian charm and style, the interior is a little less impressive. It's not bad, mind you, but it does reflect the small crossover's price point more so than its exterior.

The body-colored dash insert is a brand staple (Volkswagen does this with the new Beetle, too). While the glossy finish can induce glare in some sun angles, it works more often than it doesn't.

The "Easy Collection 4" bundle added to our tester included GPS navigation with a 6.5-inch Uconnect touchscreen, HD radio, a back-up camera, a 3.5-inch multi-function cluster display and rear cross-traffic detection.

We had low expectations for the seats, but those ended up being surpassed. They're comfortable, supportive and stylish. They treated us well over the course of a several-hundred-mile road trip, leaving us without any undue fatigue at the end of a long weekend.

But does it go?

While the seats may have been perfect for a long highway slog, we cannot extend the same praise to the powertrain. FCA's nine-speed automatic has not exactly been universally praised, and unfortunately we're going to have to throw in with the majority on this one.

Our beef was not with the transmission's response to deliberate inputs or its failure to deliver the promised fuel economy. It actually fared rather well in both respects. In fact, we averaged better than the advertised 31 mpg highway, and that was along stretches of interstate that climbed and descended the Appalachians with 70 MPH speed limits almost throughout.

Frustrations arose from trying to maintain those lofty new speed limits. The nine-speed is reluctant to downshift, stubbornly clinging to 8th or 9th gear in sharp uphill sections of highway and struggling to keep up any semblance of speed as a result. On our drive west, we left the shifting to the transmission, much to our chagrin.

We suspected the solution to this particular dilemma lay in the 500X's selectable drive modes (available on our Easy trim and up). In addition to the basic "Auto" programming, the 500X offers "Sport" and "Traction +" modes.

Bumping the knob over to "Sport" had an immediately noticeable impact on the 500X's character. "Sport" adds weight to the steering, makes throttle response more aggressive and forces the transmission to hold lower gears--the first being acceptable, the second welcome and the third a bit of a mixed bag.

The 2.4L TigerShark lacks not only the turbocharged MultiAir's torque, but its boisterous charm as well. The noises that permeated the cabin thanks to the lower gear selections were not of the particularly welcome variety. Clearly, our approach to resolving the 500X's sluggish highway performance would need further fine-tuning.

Fortunately, we did end up with a happy medium. By tapping the shifter over to manual mode and keeping the drive selector in "Sport," we were able to override the drive mode's aggressive shift pattern while maintaining its throttle response. It took a lot more work than simply leaving the thinking to the 500X's computers, but the reduced frustration was well worth it. We still managed 32 mpg, too.

Off the highway, we found Drew's previous observations about the 500X's back-roads manners to be spot-on. Responsive steering and a willing chassis combine for a surprisingly rewarding experience for a small crossover. We'd put the Fiat's fun-to-drive factor right up there with the Mazda CX-3's, but the 500X's ride quality leaves something to be desired in the same company--a surprise, considering we're comparing it to a Mazda.

Even the 500X's powertrain comports itself adequately in this situation, provided of course you don't mind the added noise of the "Sport" drive mode. But even this bright spot isn't enough to completely redeem it.

Leftlane's bottom lineWe want to love the 500X, but this powertrain combination makes it very difficult to do so. Unfortunately, the ideal pairing of the 1.4L MultiAir, a six-speed manual and all-wheel-drive is missing from this otherwise enthusiast-friendly offering. The good news? You can buy the Renegade that way.

2016 Fiat 500X Easy base price, $22,610; as-tested, $25,305Easy Collection 4, $1,700; Destination, $995

Photos by Byron Hurd.

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