BEVERLY HILLS, CA - The legendary roads around Mulholland Drive, north of Los Angeles, are some of the most challenging and thrilling around. So when a car company chooses this area as a venue to show off its latest products, they have to be able handle.
For that reason, the Fiat you'd logically expect to find here would be the Abarth-tuned 500 with its flame-spitting exhaust and bad attitude, right?
Wrong. How about a Fiat SUV? Hmmm. Less sure of that outcome!
Fiat is the latest automaker to have a go at the compact SUV segment, which is rapidly becoming the place to be in the market. New players like the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3 will all compete there, not just for attention but for pocketbooks too.
So will the all-new 2016 Fiat 500X.
Shared kit with Jeep Renegade
The 500X isn't a completely unknown entity, at least mechanically. It shares most of what's under its stylish skin with the equally new Jeep Renegade, which means an all-new platform with lots of high-strength steel and fully independent suspension all around.
Like the Renegade, the 500X uses two familiar Fiat family engines. A 1.4-litre turbocharged MultiAir four-cylinder that generates 160 horsepower and 183 lb-ft of torque is mated exclusively to a six-speed manual transmission.
The optional 2.4-litre Tigershark four-cylinder pumps out 180 horsepower but only 175 lb-ft of twist. The bigger engine comes only withs a nine-speed automatic transmission.
Fiat Canada reps feel bullish about meeting customer demands for excellent fuel economy, but as of yet there are no official NRC ratings.
Front-wheel drive is standard, and the company's trick axle-disconnecting all-wheel-drive sytem optional, but only with the larger engine.
As in its other applications, the AWD system's main propshaft decouples completely when drive to the rear wheels is not required, which Fiat says saves fuel thanks to less parasitic loss.
However, when engaged, it's fully active and the torque split is infinitely variable front to rear. The system is triggered automatically during launches from rest, when reverse is engaged, when the windshileld wipers are on, and in a few other specific situations.
Never quite settled
A three-mode drive selector with Traction , Auto and Sport choices is standard on all but base models. The power steering effort, throttle mapping and transmission shift timing are all tuned to suit the mode setting selected.
Throttle tip-in is fairly aggressive, even in auto mode – perhaps programmed that way to emphasize its Fiat clothing? Ditto for the steering effort.
The way it goes down a road isn't very satisfying as there's a lot of work done to control the body, but the 500X never feels quite settled.
Mid-corner adjustability is muddied – something crucial on roads with so many blind swithbacks and turns – as is communication from the steering wheel. It is a lot of work for the driver with little payoff.
Gorgeous but imperfect inside
Inside, the front seats look gorgeous but they aren't quite supportive enough for me, especially the short bottom cushion.
Also, neither the armrest sculpted into the door panel nor the one in the centre were anywhere close to my arms and elbows, forcing an awkward lean to use them.
And any chance of sitting "behind myself" is non-existant. A qualifier there: I'm well over six-feet tall, so more average-sized drivers should find it less of an issue.
FCA's Uconnect infotainment system remains among the easiest to use and comprehend and there are plenty of logical places for the assorted detritus we all carry in our cars. Twin gloveboxes are integrated nicely, and the door pockets accepted a pair of water bottles each.
Cargo space is 524 litres with the rear seats up and expands to 1,430 litres when they're folded.
A for the complaint areas, Fiat Canada executives were clear about these being pre-production prototypes. But how much tweaking can be done between now and the 500X's on-sale date remains to be seen.
Multiple model choices
The 500X follows the same trim line designations as the L, meaning Pop, Sport, Lounge, Trekking and Trekking Plus. The major differences come down mainly to various exterior appearance choices.
Sport and Lounge are more traditionally road-oriented, while the Trekking gets contrasting trim, satin silver bash-plates and other such trappings, suggesting off-road prowess.
Canadian prices start at $21,498 for Pop with a generous level of standard equipment including air conditioning, power windows, a basic Uconnect 3.0 with Bluetooth and USB connection and seven airbags, including a driver-side knee bag.
The Sport at $25,995 gets 17-inch wheels, a larger Uconnect display, keyless entry and ignition, cornering headlights and foglights, and more convenience stuff.
The Trekking is equipped similarly to the Sport, but its $26,995 price includes nicer cloth seats, a reconfigurable colour display in the gauge cluster, and unique 17-inch wheels.
Lounge ($29,990) and Trekking Plus ($30,490) models get the 2.4-litre engine as standard, along with heated leather seats and steering wheel, ambient lighting, a nine-speaker Beats audio system and chrome exterior trim. There's also a rear-vew camera with park assist, and on the Plus, 18-inch wheels.
Opting for AWD on the Sport and Trekking Plus, which already have the mandatory engine, adds about $2,200 to the bill. But on other models, where the option also includes an engine upgrade, the price is about $3300.
Other popular options include a full-length dual-pane moonroof and an advanced suite of active safety features such as forward collision warning, lane-keep assist, and blind-spot warning with cross traffic alert.
Jeep Renegade is complementary
For FCA, the Renegade is more complementary to the 500X than an outright rival. The Jeep plays to the off-road crowd, the Fiat to the on-road one.
There weren't even any unpaved roads on the drive route here, let alone any challenging conditions.
As mentioned before, the list of competitors is long and expanding exponentially. Any further conclusions re the 500X based on this short exposure would be premature so will have to wait for a longer test on Canadian roads in home-field conditions.