Fragile, feisty Fiat keeps looking for a way off our dusty backroads and blue highways – and into the mainstream.
I can’t seem to find that entry-ramp, either.
Ever since Fiat re-entered the U.S. in 2011 with the small, quirky 500 compact, its vehicles have lived in a niche comprised mostly of dreamy Gen Y urbanites, fanatics of all things Italy and people who ran out of gas on their way to a VW store.
OK, I’m not so sure about that last one. The fact is, though, Fiat’s base in the U.S. remains tiny – a scant 32,742 sales last year, down nearly 24 percent.
It certainly makes no secret of its, uh, colorful heritage.
And laughably clumsy offshoots like the 500L, as well as Fiat’s long-standing reputation of questionable quality – Fix It Again, Tony – consign the company to the shadows.
But here’s a well-kept secret about oddball Fiat: the compact 500X crossover not only shines as the brand’s best-looking vehicle, it also shares engines, transmissions, and platforms with the Jeep Renegade. (Fiat owns Chrysler and Jeep, as you probably know.)
Think of the 500X as an Italian who speaks fluent English and lives in Santa Monica six months out of the year, a Fiat that can do more than haul Frisbees and long-haired dachshunds to the park.
It certainly makes no secret of its, uh, colorful heritage. Oversized oval headlamps and a smallish grille dominated by a thick silver bar appear to have been lifted directly from the 500 sedan.
Meanwhile, a short, nicely chiseled hood tops equally brief front fenders, while large doors account for most of the X’s truncated length.
In back, large round taillamps strongly anchor the hatchback rear, and the X crouches on decent-sized 225/45 tires wrapped around 18-inch basket-weave wheels.
No one will mistake it for another Ford or Honda crossover – I promise.
Moreover, you may be surprised by its performance around town, particularly if you’ve driven a wheezy 500 sedan.
While the X doesn’t generate great performance numbers, it moves with fine Italian zest.
Mine came with the optional 2.4-liter four, a more refined and civilized motor than the standard turbocharged 1.4-liter engine.
The black interior in my 500X offered a bit more flair than I had anticipated in a $28,000 crossover.
Although the turbo four packs a bit more torque – 184 lb.-ft. versus 175, thanks to the turbo – it feels peaky and stressed.
At low rpm, the 180-horsepower 2.4-liter motor gives the X a decent kick, pushing the all-wheel-drive, 3,400-pound crossover away from stops with vigor.
The engine seemed pretty spirited up to about 4,000 rpm, but flattened out after that – though it still revved willingly to 6,000.
You won’t struggle to reach highway speeds, though, with 60 arriving in an acceptable 8.7 seconds, according to Car and Driver.
In addition, the big four-banger scratches out reasonable fuel economy – 22 mpg in town and 30 on the highway.
Helping out most of the time was a 9-speed automatic, moving through all those cogs smoothly without much notice.
Occasionally, though, like a really good-looking bad date, it could be jerky in a lower gear and shift hard. (I would suggest buying it another drink, but I don’t believe that works with cars.)
However, the steering felt well-weighted and quick, tightening up just a tad in corners as it should.
Although the high-riding 500X leaned some in curves and corners, its fairly taut suspension absorbed bumps nicely, providing a Euro ride somewhere between smooth and sporty.
Similarly, the black interior in my 500X offered a bit more flair than I had anticipated in a $28,000 crossover.
A mostly flat upper dashboard, for example, rolled onto a kind of upright retro-shaped mid-dash covered in a slightly different material than the upper dash.
If you insist on using the X like a crossover, you’ll find 12 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seat.
Like many European vehicles, the X offered only a 6.5-inch display screen in the middle of the dash rather than some garish center-stack.
Its technology included integrated voice command with Bluetooth, as well as a media hub with a USB port.
Also, gray piping and perforated centers added some class to the X’s black-leather seats, which really acquitted themselves with good leg- and head-room in back.
And if you insist on using the X like a crossover, you’ll find 12 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seat.
Look, I can’t speak for the 500X’s long-term reliability – and that’s something to consider.
But I really like vehicles that are greater than the sum of their parts – and the personable X definitely stands tall in that category.
Besides, most people won’t know what it is and will think you’re pretty darn exotic when you tell them.