Curbside Review: 2019 Fiat 500X Trekking Plus AWD – More Room To Carry The Baggage

There’s no need to be anything other than frank when discussing Fiat on these pages; while we can celebrate the rebirth of a storied brand on our shores, we also can recognize that it hasn’t been an easy rebirth in many ways.  Without sugarcoating things, many are still associating Fiat with the bad old days of the 1970s although that’s not necessarily fair.  So it was with interest that I received this absolutely loaded up Fiat 500X the week before Christmas and had an opportunity to give it a good shake (spoiler: It did not rattle).

This is the “X” model, which is not the same as the smaller 500 which was the first car to be introduced here back in 2011 and just discontinued as of this new year.  Fiat’s 2020 range will consist of the 500X, the 500L, and the 124 sports car sister to the Mazda Miata.  The X was introduced here for 2016 and is built on the same platform as and shares a lot of parts with the Jeep Renegade, both of which are assembled on the same line in Melfi, Italy and then shipped here.

While the original 500 is a small car, the X is (relatively speaking) much larger.  It’s still small, mind you, but not tiny.  It has four doors as opposed to two, and the front seat occupants have plenty of space without bumping into each other.  The back seat is snug but manageable.  Seeing as how it is AWD, the logical competitor is the MINI Countryman, which also plays in the sort of retro, slightly upscale, and fashion-conscious portion of the CUV segment.  Curiously though, while Fiat initially received and still gets a lot of grief from people regarding reliability, actual or perceived, based on their memories of yore, the MINI seemed to get no such stigma attached to it, although also hailing from a part of the world with a historically less than stellar reliability rep over here.

In any case, I do believe it was a bit of a mistake to badge this (and the L) as a 500.  The 500 is the 500 and while famous in Europe, our market never really knew it so there isn’t much equity in the name.  This larger 500X one should just be the 600 (or 600X I suppose) as there is precedent for that.  And the 500L should perhaps be the Multipla.  When I told a friend that I had a 500X for the week he said “Oh, they just cancelled that one” and I had to explain that this is not that one (and he’s a car guy as well).

First impressions were good.  As you can see the car is draped in a coat of red paint, “Rosso Passione” in Fiat-speak which is a welcome change from the grayscale palette that afflicts most cars.  In fact Fiat offers many different actual colors in its range to choose from at no additional charge.  A grille with the logo and roundish headlights make for a friendly face with a non-threatening demeanor, another welcome change.

Large taillights in the back, a smattering of chrome and brushed-steel-effect accents along with decent sized wheels and tires are other focal points and then there are a couple of skid-plate-looking accents as well as the requisite moldings to convey the CUV-ish aspects of the package.  It’s distinctive without being in your face, doesn’t scream aggression but also has enough butch traits to not be immediately branded as overly (overtly?) feminine.

Opening the door and getting inside reveals a well-styled interior draped in brown leather and a very attractive dashboard finished in body color.  While not metal, the painted portion looks and feels good and conveys the right retro vibe.  The other parts, mostly in black, are composed of much more soft plastic than I expected including most of the upper surfaces until you get close to the base of the windshield.  The leather is soft and feels leathery as opposed to plasticky and while I personally would have picked either a cream color or black as the hue to mate with the red exterior and dash, taken by itself I found the brown attractive.  The driver’s seat in this version had four way lumbar support which was very welcome and, and all adjustments were of the electric variety.

Try as I might, however, I could never get completely comfortable, the main offender being the headrest which seemed to protrude too far forward for me and was only resolved when I raised it enough so the bottom lip cleared my neck.  However at that point it was beyond the detents built into the supports and lowered itself again after a hefty bump in the road, I also doubt that technically being “loose” would be particularly safe in a collision.  I do recognize that seats don’t fit everyone the same so the fact that it wasn’t perfect for me doesn’t mean it won’t be for you.  I’m around 6ft 1in, I think if I were a few inches shorter in torso (in my case combined with a 32″ inseam) that would have been much better.  My head (and hair) just barely cleared the panoramic sunroof frame but leg comfort was great, both in reach as well as space.

Instrumentation is clear, easy to read and conveys all the immediately necessary information at a glance.  The center display can toggle through about ten screens with various information and setting options, I usually just kept it as a large digital readout of the speed along with toggling to keep an eye on my fuel economy.

Moving further to the center of the car, FCA’s UConnect4 infotainment system is mounted high up but integrated with the dashboard.  Comprised of a 7-inch screen within a larger matte glass panel it did a good job of providing access to secondary settings and of course the radio options.  The screen seemed to be less susceptible to fingerprints than some others; as I mentioned it has more of matte or even slightly textured surface that seems to help with that.  The size was just fine seeing as you are seated a bit closer to it that you might be in some larger cars, kind of how a 32″ large-screen TV is perfectly acceptable when you are seated a few feet away from it as opposed to across a large living room.

HVAC controls are of the three-knob variety but with automatic functionality built in, pretty much a set and forget system with buttons to control where the air actually exits into the cabin, which can be chosen singly or in any combination.  The fan was a bit noisy to my ears, anything over maybe 30% of the highest speed was definitely audible, a lower point than many other systems.  By half speed a radio volume adjustment was needed.

Two cupholders in the center console are adequately sized if not 44oz soda spec but then again if 44oz sodas are a regular dietary consumption item this may not be the best fitting car either.  A large “tall-boy” Arizona ice tea can fit very snugly if that helps one visualize things.  A small bin can hold oddments under your elbow which would rest upon the lid, a softly padded piece that slides fore and aft as needed to nestle said elbow in comfort. Just in front of the shift lever is another small and pretty deep bin to hold the phone or whatever other small items.  Several USB ports and a 12v charger are also located at/near the front bin area.

As a minor aside, the overall fit and finish were impeccable throughout.  Harder to describe is the feel of the buttons,  knobs and handles etc.; while this car is part of the FCA empire, these items simply felt good as well as solid with just the right amount of resistance and feedback when using them.  A small thing, to be sure, but it gives a good impression and speaks to a level of care in the engineering that isn’t always there in some other cars.  Overall these items felt better and more expensive than in the RAMs, Jeeps and Chryslers I’m familiar with.

The back seats are comfortable if not overly large.  My two boys said it was snug, however they are used to larger vehicles.  I gave it a try myself and when seated behind where my driver’s seat would be my knees were touching but not completely pressed into the seatback while my head was barely touching the roof (again, lower inside than normal due to the large sunroof).

I myself could have tolerated it for most any reasonably local ride of maybe an hour or two, but not an all-day affair.  I can’t really fault it for this, I’m larger than the average and it’s not advertised as a large car.  If that’s your thing, maybe check out the 500L instead?

The hatchback cargo area is well designed and impeccably finished with a high standard of materials, the rigid surfaces and items such as the cargo cover and lower tray were solid and the carpeting was of a good quality.  It opens wide and seems able to hold enough relative to the size of the car.  The hard luggage cover can be removed if desired and while my tester had the optional spare tire under the floor (it looked full-size in diameter but skinnier), it seems the regular version without a spare would have more stowage space underneath instead.  The picture reminds me that there was a lip to lift over but I had multiple items and boxes and even a 50lb bag of grout in there at one point, none of which caused any issues for me.

The engine (new for 2019 and used in every Fiat as well as the Jeep Renegade) is a 1.3liter Direct Injected turbocharged 4-cylinder and has a peak output of 177hp at 5500rpm and a torque figure of 210lb-ft at 2200rpm.  It is mated to a 9-speed transmission and standard AWD.  This replaces both the older 1.4 liter turbo as well as the 2.4liter that used to be required for the AWD version.

Driving it (finally!) revealed some paradoxes.  Firing right up every time with the ubiquitous starter button without issues even after repeated significantly sub-freezing nights parked outside, it seems to avoid the DI clatter common in some other engines and settles into a smooth idle immediately.  The transmission programming, once a problem with FCA’s 9-speed, again as in the Cherokee I drove recently, works well and imperceptibly.  Once warmed up and able to exploit the power on tap, this engine is far more impressive that I had anticipated it being.  Although there is a small bit of lag right off the line which one adjusts for after getting used to it, it has a very wide powerband and much more power than the car really needs.  While I’ve long been a proponent of the theory that there isn’t a car made that couldn’t benefit from an extra fifty horsepower, this may prove the end of that theory for me.

No, it’s not a Ferrari by any means, but it simply seems to pull very well and quicker than the figures touted in the buff books would have you believe.  More importantly it doesn’t run out of steam, driving to Denver on I-25 at the normal 80-85mph revealed noticeable acceleration when pinning the throttle briefly, merely in the interests of informing you, of course.  Off the line at a light it just jumps out once it gets past the initial brief lag.

I had the car with snow still on the ground in some areas of town and the high-performance all-season Continental tires the car was fitted with weren’t the best match for those conditions although the AWD let it pull away or around corners without much slippage.  Once on dry (or wet) ground, it stuck extremely well and was able to carve around corners at a pace faster than I’d be comfortable doing with most other CUVs although there wasn’t very much road feel through the wheel.

The wheel though was of good heft and diameter with well placed controls on both the front and the rear (audio system toggles on the rear).  The ride was a bit jiggly due to the short wheelbase but well damped, a pothole or large expansion strip would register as a solid thump but no extraneous motion, head toss on rougher surfaces was minimal to non-existent and in the majority of conditions best described as “euro-firm” but compliant.  In short, no complaints on that score.

The engine makes decent sounds and is a bit rorty, overall it’s slightly on the loud side, especially under acceleration.  Road, wind, and tire noise were well suppressed though and it is Italian, so engine noise is perhaps part of the package and to be appreciated, capisce?  I drove it almost 400 miles in just under a week, with close to a 50/50 mix of city and highway and it returned an indicated 26mpg.  This isn’t fantastic (and it is rated at 24City/30Hwy/26Combined so right on the money) but at least it only called for regular unleaded fuel, a welcome surprise.

Once the low fuel light came on after about 300 miles I decided to get some gas as I am supposed to return it with at least a quarter tank.  I didn’t really think about it and figured ten gallons should get me over the halfway mark with room for some more driving that week and was surprised to realize the gauge was now back at full.  Of course the tank is smaller than what I’m used to at 12.7 gallons so that makes sense but still allows for a range of well over 300 miles.

As with the Alfa Romeo I drove last year this car also has a driver selectable “Mode” knob.  Allowing one to choose between Sport, Standard/Automatic and Traction, I generally left it in Standard/Automatic as I suspect most people will do.  However the Sport mode did make a significant difference in the responsiveness of the car mainly by usually being in a lower gear and often holding that gear depending on the maneuver that had just been performed.  It also made the car louder (obviously) and more nervous-feeling, or perhaps “edgy” is a better word.  If I was 20 again I’d probably keep it in Sport mode and use the manual shift mode along with it and probably collect lots of tickets.  Once I hit 80 years of age, maybe I’d primarily use Traction mode…mainly meant for loose surfaces or snow/ice it retards some of the functions so there is less slippage etc.

This car was equipped with an engine stop/start system and I am pleased to report that while it has a large defeat button right on the dash, it was one of the better systems I’ve used with minimal shake and shudder.  Yes it’s still there if you are looking for it, but almost imperceptible and what’s noticed more is the silence when it turns the engine off.  I used the defeat button once to make sure it worked (it did) but then left it as is, whereas in the Jeep Compass I drove last summer with the 2.4liter engine I seem to recall trying to hit the button as soon as I started that car as it was far more objectionable.

Let’s shed some light on the issue that I know people will fixate on with this car, or at least the one I had – the price.  The 500X line starts at $24,740 and there are a total of six (that seems like a lot!) trim levels of which mine was the absolute top one.  All trims get the same engine, transmission, and standard AWD.  My trim level, the “Trecking Plus” level, started at $29,445.  That includes leather, navigation, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, bluetooth, voice commands, heated seats (but not wheel), LED headlights, tinted windows, front and rear parking sensors, heated mirrors, 17″ wheels and a bunch of other stuff, i.e. not at all stripped and somewhat comparable to some other options out there.

The options (on top of the trim level) on my car were comprised of the Premium Group for $1,695 which included an upgrade to 215/55-18 tires and wheels, the “Beats” premium audio system and the panoramic sunroof with separate shades for front and rear passengers.  I’d happily skip the sunroof (but that’s just me) and found the audio system to not be anything overly special.  The wheels I liked and the tires were good in non-snowy/icy conditions.

Additionally it also came with the advanced driver assistance group for $1,395 which I’d select as it includes Adaptive Speed Control, Blind Spot and CrossPath Detection, Lane Keep Assist, Automated Braking, Automatic High Beams, and Rain Sensitive Wipers.  And last but not least the spare tire kit at $295 as well as the destination charge of $1,495 bringing it to a grand total asking price of $34,325.  While I don’t want this to overshadow the rest of the car and its attributes, I can recognize that this may be perceived as a large-ish number for a small-ish car.

Of course, as stated, this car has pretty much everything included and most will likely not leave the showroom with this much stuff in it.  I glanced at some other company’s sites and realized that a comparable MINI with similar power would be even more expensive although the Jeep Renegade would be several thousand less.  Some of the other smaller Germans can go beyond this as can the Asians so in the end it’s best to compare everything yourself and look in person to see how the intangibles measure up.  The warranty includes four years and 50,000 miles bumper to bumper coverage.

Due to the usual CC effect, I saw one of these ahead of me in traffic the first day I had it and then saw several others over the week, but overall these are somewhat thin on the ground.  Our local FCA dealer does not carry Fiat so that likely has something to do with it but I imagine they could service this as it’s so similar mechanically to the Renegade.

In summation, I’m left with a bit of a paradox.  While it was not the perfect car for me and my lifestyle and it physically didn’t fit me perfectly (uniquely my problem so I’ll set that aside), it was a lot of fun to drive and I believe it possesses an intangible sense of style that is missing in a lot of the mass-market offerings and part of that is reflected in the pricing.  Of course you have to like the way it looks for that to be worth anything and that is very subjective.  So from an objective viewpoint, mechanically there is very little to fault.  With this new engine, it’s more powerful than it could be (and more powerful than most if perhaps not all of its mass-market competition), it has loads of desirable features, the materials are of a higher standard than others, and it seems to be carefully assembled.  To toss out the baggage, I had zero problems with it (not that I expected any), everything made sense at first glance, there were no rattles or assembly issues, and everything appeared to be of a high quality.  Bravo, Fiat!