The 500X Sport is both endearing and frustrating, a hallmark of Italian cars.
In an automotive landscape dominated by German, Asian and American vehicles, Italian cars have always been something of a rogue’s choice. They’re stylish, characterful and alternative, albeit not without their flaws. To brush up on our Italian lessons, we grabbed the keys to a 2020 Fiat 500X Sport to see if its Italian character can make it a genuine contender in the high-style premium subcompact crossover segment.
The recipe for the Fiat 500X’s design is quite simple: take a regular Fiat 500, insert a straw and puff gently to inflate. The result is much more faithful and cutesy styling than other attempts at turning a retro city car into a five-door crossover. The ovoid design motif accentuated by the Sport trim’s colour-keyed mouldings cements the 500X’s place in the 500 family and the matte grey door and hatch handles are a nice change from fingerprint-attracting chrome. The 500X’s exterior lighting is particularly delightful, with colour-keyed trim panels set in LED halos out back and optional LED projectors up front with daytime running lights reminiscent of eyeliner. Our tester came rolling on 18-inch alloy wheels to really make a visual impact. Interestingly, the 500X has three different functional grilles stacked vertically upon its fascia. There’s a thin opening below the iconic Fiat front trim, a mail slot mounted mid-way down on the front fascia and a lower grille that work to provide sufficient cooling while preserving the grille-less look reminiscent of the original rear-engined air-cooled 500’s front end. Nice.
The interior is full of clever touches and genuine charm, from the minimal use of glossy black plastic to the quirky retro dashboard and the sueded gauge cluster hood that doesn’t reflect onto the windscreen. HVAC controls are easy to use, both volume and tuning knobs are present and commonly-used cubbies are softly illuminated which makes it easier to find stowed items at night. The bottom seat cushions are nostalgically overstuffed like granddad’s favourite chair and the cargo floor is an ingenious two-position design that allows owners to choose between having underfloor storage and a fairly flat cargo area with the rear seats folded or maximum cargo area height for bringing a keg to a party without sacrificing rear visibility. Rear passenger space is quite good, with plenty of legroom and stadium-style seating that gives people in the back a decent view of the road ahead. As expected in a subcompact crossover, rear seat width is great for two but riding three-across is only recommended for short trips.
Infotainment comes courtesy of a seven-inch UConnect system that’s quite responsive, with an easy-to-navigate menu structure and decent screen black levels. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay come standard and USB ports are both conveniently located and illuminated. Those fond of music would be best to spring for the optional Beats Audio surround-sound system as the 500X’s basic stereo isn’t up to scratch for people even slightly snobby about audio. Even with the equalizer tweaked to a warm setting, the treble is too shrill and the midrange seems to have taken a leave of absence. Bass at 120Hz and below is also lacking which is disappointing as one shouldn’t have to spend $1,995 on a sound-and-moonroof package to hear their music reasonably well.
Although there’s lots to like about the 500X’s cabin, there are a few ergonomic oversights that are a bit obvious. One can only assume that the 500X’s driving position was decided by someone with long arms and short legs on a Tuesday afternoon, as adjusting the seat is a battle between having comfortable arms and comfortable legs even when the telescoping steering column is farthest extended from the dashboard. The sliding centre armrest does its best to alleviate the reach to the steering wheel but it doesn’t help much with the reach to the infotainment system. Said armrest is also higher than the door armrest which feels a bit weird. As many people on Tinder would confirm, an extra quarter of an inch can make a big difference.
Powering the 500X is a tiny 1.3-litre turbocharged inline-four that has a bit of a split personality. Cruising along out of boost, it’s subtle and remarkably economical. However, when the loud pedal is buried that turbo spools up to summon 210 lb-ft. of torque with a charming growl that’s brimming with brio. It’s endearing, engaging and distinctly Italian despite what its middle-of-the-road peak horsepower figure of 177 suggests.
Twist and hold the drive mode selector in the centre console to put the 500X in sport mode and throttle response sharpens, the all-wheel-drive system engages, the steering gets weightier and the transmission logic changes to a more aggressive map that keeps that lively engine on song more of the time. Keep in mind, enjoying this gutsy little powerplant can take a bit of a toll at the pump. Over a week of mostly highway driving this 500X averaged 9.1 L/100km, bang-on with the official combined fuel economy rating but slightly disappointing given the amount of highway driving and the 500X’s requirement of 91 octane.
The news gets worse when it comes to putting all that torque to the ground. Unfortunately, the ZF-produced 948TE nine-speed automatic tries its hardest to spoil the zesty little four-pot under the hood. Slowly rolling onto the throttle in normal mode summons up the ghost of Maserati’s DuoSelect single-clutch gearbox to provide some of the laggiest, jerkiest downshifts in the segment. Torque converter judder is also present when easing off the throttle at highway speed and occasionally the engine simply bounces off the limiter before the transmission decides to shift. Where this nine-speed differs from the aforementioned DuoSelect is that it genuinely isn’t better in manual mode. Quickly tap the left paddle twice for a double downshift and most of the time the transmission decides it would rather do a sudoku or play a round of poker than execute that second downshift.
Thankfully, the 2020 Fiat 500X Sport’s chassis is reasonably chipper when bumbling about town. The steering rack is surprisingly quick, great for on-ramps and city streets but a bit challenging to keep straight on the highway due to its dartiness. More importantly, changes in road camber are telegraphed up the steering column which is a welcome trait in a world of novocaine-injected electric power steering. Ride quality is firm without being crashy, although there is quite a bit of road and wind noise. Some extra aero-shaping of the wing mirrors and thicker underbody noise-reduction paneling would go a long way toward improving cabin NVH. When pressed further, corner-entry understeer is the headline of the day. Not terribly surprising considering the 500X rides on an economical front-drive-based architecture but a thicker rear sway bar and more aggressive front camber would enhance the zest that small Italian cars are known for.
The optional active safety suite equipped on our 500X test car is a bit of a mixed bag. The adaptive cruise control is smooth and predictable and the parking sensors are a nice touch. Unfortunately, the lane-keep assist is not the most brilliant system on the market with a tendency to ping-pong between the road lines. In addition, the blind spot monitoring system has an annoying habit of chiming in mid-lane change when it detects a car in the lane next to the one the driver is changing into. Furthermore, the resolution of the rear-view camera simply doesn’t cut it in 2020.
The 2020 Fiat 500X Sport is both endearing and frustrating, a hallmark of Italian cars. While its flaws serve to highlight its brilliant highlights, the price tag may leave shoppers feeling like they’ve experienced a gelato-induced brain freeze. While an entry price of $33,495 for the Sport seems par for the course, our tester came out to $38,275. For $35,931, Mazda offers the CX-30 GT (reviewed here). While it may not have the engine, cutesy looks and eager demeanor of the 500X, it’s better equipped. Spend a little bit more and Lexus offers the UX 200 for $37,450 with its neon-future styling, a reputation for reliability and a genuine luxury badge on the front. While the 2020 Fiat 500X Sport is endearing, it needs a little more time in the oven before it can play with the heavy-hitters in the subcompact premium crossover segment.