And another 500, which might be Fiat’s last one for now…?
Poor old Fiat has been glued to a half-a-litre fixation in recent years. Its half-Millennial trip has been its present five-centurial ‘thang’ that few and far between, suggests Iain Robertson, have been able to nudge off-line.
Of course, the Italian carmaker’s passion was fired by the obsession of BMW, after it obtained the rights to Mini. The new Mini is as far from mini as it is possible to be and Fiat figured, in some ways quite justifiably, that it could pursue a similar retrospective issue with its equally iconic baby, the original ‘Duova’, the Cinquecento, the 500.
Fiat needed 500. Without it, the company would have continued to flounder in a post-General Motors world, where the ‘yanks’ had left the brand bruised and bleeding from its partnership assault. You see, Fiat’s declining market share in the late-1990s led it up the pathway to a strategic alliance with GM, which would always be a troubled one. GM opted out after just under five traumatic years, paying Fiat a modest dowry by return. Both firms burned their financial fingers badly.
However, nationalistic pride also entered the fray and the Italians switched off their nominal right to buy Italian motorcars. Had you played the colourful ‘autostrada’ game of ‘Spot The Italian Motorcar!’ ten, or fifteen years ago, the result would have been seven out of ten, at least, in favour of the Latin brands. Do the same today, as I did, on an interminable, 90-minutes coach ride from Malpensa Airport, Milan, to Fiat’s Balocco test facility (the original Alfa Romeo experimental centre) and the result is a mere one in ten. On that basis, Fiat Auto Group might be judged to have missed a boat, or two.
The reason for my most recent trip, knowing that the Italians are as good at organising such ventures as those people incapable of managing a hog-roast in a pig farm, was to put the enticing 500X model to the test. Yet, despite a ‘fast-track’ promise, before I even reached Balocco, I had been put through a wringer at Malpensa, resulting in the look of a rapist-on-the-run. Perhaps I should have highlighted that, after many years of ritual self-abuse, I am not really built for mile-long hikes through centrally-heated aeropuerto, when the operators of such buildings believe that winter is not merely on the way but here in full-on severity! I believe that members of the criminal fraternity might have perspired less in the circumstances.
However, I shall not mention the fact that Day One of this trip was car-less. I had, in fact, seen more semi-luxury coach interiors over the course of Day One than over the prior 365 days. However, Italian food is always fantastic, even though it required another two lengthy bus rides to reach it.
Standing alongside the 500X, you are immediately aware that this model is the ultimate optical illusion. The car portrays a 500-esque image, from a distance, while its true dimensions are closer to Qashqai, than Micra. It is a surprisingly tall and accommodating machine. It is also abundantly clear that the 500X is closer in relationship to Paceman, albeit with five, rather than three doors, or Countryman, from the BMW stable, but thankfully nowhere near as ‘fugly’ as either of the Teutonic efforts. However, the relationship between Mini and 500 is now becoming abundantly clear and the tail lamp units are not the only precursor.
A high hip-point, or access point, is a beneficial aspect, when clambering into the cosy cockpit. Plentiful adjustment of both driver’s seat and steering column ensure a supportive and comfortable seating position, with the driver confronted by a hooded three-dial instrument cluster, a slab of ‘body-coloured’ dashboard trim (the only real ‘hark-back’ feature in an otherwise modern interior) and a central touch screen for mobile link-up and most minor controls.
Within minutes of departing the exquisite Torinese hotel of Night One, I felt in-charge and eminently satisfied with where I was, driving through the heart of the city, en-route to the hills near Brescia. Typically, you need your wits about you to duel with Italian drivers, who are as fascinated with the ‘nuovo Fiat’, as they are honking their horns, while manipulating a mobile-phone camera and gesticulating wildly at their passengers, pedestrians and the general scenery.
Yet, becoming familiar with the 500X was scarcely an issue. Everything falls to hand naturally and, whether flicking the indicator stalk, switching on the headlamps, or selecting the flow of conditioned air, while similar to the regular ‘baby’ 500, all of the switchgear possesses both high-quality solidity and assured responses to input. An inevitable tug is felt through the steering wheel rim, while traversing tramlines, but it proved to be a trait unrepeated, once into the beautiful northern Italian countryside.
Once clear of Turin and its outskirts, I was able to extend the performance potential of the 1.6-litre MultiJet II four-cylinder engine. Developing a modest 120bhp, it is a tribute to Fiat’s engineers that it progresses with notable alacrity, thanks to a good torque figure, despatching the 0-60mph sprint in around 10.2 seconds, while indicating well over 160kph (100mph) on a few deserted sections of straight road. This unit is said to emit a lowly 109g/km of CO2, while a rough recalculation of its fuel economy reading suggested that in excess of 50mpg should be feasible for most drivers (its Official Combined figure is 68.9mpg, which I believe to be a tad ambitious).
The (we are informed) new generation 6-speed manual gearbox is as slick as any such remote control has a right to be. The ratios are well-chosen to allow plenty of get-up-and-go in the lower gears, while enabling relaxed, open-road cruising in top. Whether tackling hairpin bends in the hills, mini-roundabouts in towns and villages, or cruising on a stretch of motorway, the competence of the 500X is transmitted to the driver and passengers with a fluency not normally the preserve of Italian cars.
Of course, you have to wonder if this is a by-product of the firm’s current relationship with Chrysler-Jeep, because the car sampled initially was the front-wheel-drive variant of a model that shares its underpinnings with the soon-to-be-introduced Jeep Renegade. However, it remains a stoically Fiat model, with so much appeal that its importance to the brand is underscored magnificently. The 4WD version would also yield impressive results but, before getting there, I should highlight that in terms of tactility, the 500X has it sussed to perfection. There is a pleasing sense of strength and integrity to the car that I had not expected and, even in mid-market Pop Star trim (the range starts with Pop and is topped by Lounge levels), it is comfortable, roomy, practical and user-friendly. There is a lot to like and enjoy about the 500X, the price range for which starts at an affordable £14,595.
Naturally, hopping into the range-topping, 4WD 500X Cross Plus, complete with all the extras expected of a loaded car, which includes a much heftier price tag of £25,845, the transition was not as wide as I thought it might be, although it was obvious that fewer blank switches, allied to a new 9-speed automatic transmission and switchable drive-train, might lift expectations onto another plane. They did so.
While the regular 500X looks all sweet and stylistically 500-esque, the Cross Plus possesses all the muscular appeal of the archetypal 4×4, from the grey body cladding to the notional bull-bars fore and aft. This is a meaty rival to the aforementioned Nissan Qashqai, a more purposeful alternative to the Renault Captur, while being a prettier and less hairdressy competitor to the ugly-bugs Nissan Juke, or the mumsy-appealing Mini Countryman. It is certainly, even in top trim, markedly better value for money than all of them. I would venture to suggest that it is a handsome and good-looking hatchback, even though I prefer the more svelte appearance of the less overt versions.
The driving qualities are the same. Smooth, fuss-free progress, allied to decently leggy gearing, through the slickest of slush-boxes. In this case, the engine is the 2.0-litre MultiJet II turbo-diesel that develops 140bhp, while emitting 144g/km CO2 and glugging fuel at around 45mpg (51.4mpg Official). It can zip from 0-60mph in around 9.5 seconds, topping out at a whisker below 120mph. Again, it is smooth, refined and liveable.
Yet, granted the opportunity to tackle Balocco’s comprehensive 4×4 test route, I indulged in slaloms through the trees, splashing through mud-baths and tackling leaf-strewn steep climbs and descents, none of which were particularly gruelling, although they did highlight the car’s exceptionally rigid construction, which allows the suspension to work more proficiently, and its off-road balance and stability. With one of Fiat’s test engineers on-board (a necessary Health & Safety requirement, apparently), I also tackled a 45-degree side inclination and, when confronted by a twin concrete-humped challenge, I proceeded to perform a real chassis-twisting slalom, putting the 500X through a most compromising, two diagonally-opposed wheels-off-the-ground test. I was not just surprised at the car’s seamless recovery, although the electronic whirring was obvious, but also its outstanding inherent sturdiness. The 4×4 versions start at around £18,595.
Despite another coach return ride to Malpensa and more reluctant rapist traipsing through the superheated airport, I departed Italy full in the knowledge that Fiat had not understated the importance of its new 500X. It is a shining example of how a company, with its back to wall, can produce a genuine winner. Having recently experienced the outstanding qualities of the Fiat Panda Cross, I believe that the 500X will deliver what the company needs for its next decade in business, despite the brand name.
Conclusions: Fiat has made a timely launch of its new 500X, even though British consumers will not actually see the car until April 2015. Its styling is fine, despite leaning quite heavily on the 500 ‘tiddler’ for inspiration. Yet, its range of practical features, a decently proportioned boot and clever use of technology will assure it the broad appeal that Fiat needs so much. Good handling, decent performance and low running costs make the 500X a solid choice for realists, as well as fashionistas.