IAIN ROBERTSON

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It is not too long ago that many critics, including Iain Robertson, despite a fascination for Italian automotive gems, would not have given Fiat half a chance of survival…yet the 500, in X-guise, demonstrates doggedness.

 

Whether you believe in bella fortuna, or not, the Fiat story of recent years is one of tremendous grit and determination. As traditionally herbed as a bowl of spaghetti bolognaise and as richly creamy as carbonara, Fiat was under the control of the omnipotent Agnelli family, which had fingers in many pies.

 

To the average Italian, family (and food) is everything, whether in the sunny but poor south of the country, where the Cosa Nostra predominated, or the successful but industrial north, where rain, hail, or shine, manufacturing industry has provided work for entire dynasties of Italians, families would divide and conquer, share and share alike but never forget their roots. The Fiat family produced motorcars, vans, trucks, buses, trains, boats and even planes to keep its people mobile and contented.

 

DSC_2698_editedFiat’s share of its domestic market, which it would always satisfy and serve first, was remarkable. Nine of every ten cars produced would be Italian registered and imports were both expensive and thin on the ground. The brands were many in number, several never being exported, but they all possessed a concentration of brio, the cuore sportivo, or the classical Latin elegance that garnered attention and developed infatuations.

 

So powerful were the Agnellis that they could command a papal presence at a car launch, the Pontiff making a magnanimous blessing that carried a positive message across the almost entirely Roman Catholic population. Yet, the family was dying and it was in denial about its future. Seeking an international partner, during those heady and slightly wacky days of the 1990s, when the motor industry was drunk on a feast of acquisitions and funding was a ten-a-penny gesture by international banks, it got into bed with ‘The General’. General Motors was an unusual cohort, overbearing, American and many times more financially viable, even than its Italian strategic colleague.

 

DSC_2699_editedIt was a marriage made in hell and one not entirely approved of by the Vatican. GM swung its lead and incurred major damage on its Italian charge. The Italians did not want to buy US. Sr Agnelli passed away. They voted with their feet and those feet turned away from Fiat Group showrooms, notably on domestic soil. GM scored a few points and obtained Fiat’s market-leading diesel technology; one of its sought-after prizes. Otherwise, it was unfulfilling for either side. A divorce settlement was agreed but Fiat was in disarray, floundering without a proper leader and it had lost face locally.

 

In 2014, a fresh deal was struck, albeit with another US giant, this time Chrysler Corporation, which had emerged from an equally fraught relationship with the immense Daimler-Benz company. Andrea Agnelli remained on the non-executive board and the family still owns around 30% of the company’s stock but the rest would be in the name of a new concern, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Despite its enormous size, with several automotive and non-automotive brands in its Group portfoilo, it would be and remains an uphill battle to rebuild reputations on both sides of the Atlantic but, especially, on mainland Europe…especially with its widely varying cars.

 

DSC_2700_editedThe changes are occurring on a daily basis. Jeep remains a worldwide icon, although Fiat is expanding its empire with iconic product, such as the 500 model line. It is a fantastic means to grow a market and the 500 launch in North America is helping no end (plus there are 250,000 of them on our roads alone). However, the current Cinquecento is really just a shell; it is the spin-offs that carry the can for FCA.

 

The 500X, which shares its underpinnings with the Jeep Renegade, is a compact crossover vehicle. Eminently capable, not just of turning heads but also of generating great emotional strength, is built in the heart of Turin, northern Italy’s industrial capital city. Apart from some relatively rare militaria, Fiat has never attempted to enjoy success in the 4×4 arena. It knows that, as the market has shifted from off-road potential, to on-road prowess, it needs to become a player and, while the vast majority of 500X models will be sold without the driven rear axle, it does not stop them promoting a premise that it might exist and thereby satisfies a populist market demand across several, international territories.

 

DSC_2701_editedThe car is surprisingly large, as its more minuscule 500-esque features, albeit tied to a higher-than-average ride height and largely steroid-enhanced body, belie its dimensions. It is very much part of the family. Unmistakably Fiat. Unmistakably 500. Yet, the similarities end with the early perceptions. There is no historically reflective twin-cylinder 875cc engine. Instead, a choice of more conventional petrols and diesels – in 1.4T, 1.3TD, 2.0TD and, the 1.6-litre test car, in the middle-ground, with a 120bhp turbo-diesel – are on offer. It is a convention shared with the Jeep Renegade, a petrol version of which will be reported on very soon.

 

It was a sister company of Fiat, Alfa Romeo, that invented common-rail diesel engineering, which is now widely spread across the entire motor industry, so you might rightly expect that what FCA does not know, or comprehend, about the good Dr Diesel’s science is probably not worth knowing. You would be correct. The engine is unstressed and a brilliant mid-range performer. Its 236lbs ft of torque is a strident figure for a 1.6-litre displacement.

 

DSC_2703_editedIt is also enough to propel the 1.32-tonne hatchback to a top speed of 115mph, despatching the 0-60mph benchmark in 10.2 seconds en-route. Its delivery is smooth and fluent, enabling surprisingly high-speed cruising in its relatively tall 6th gear, with scarcely a murmur from beneath the bonnet. Yet, it is a frugal unit too, from its 68.9mpg Official Combined guide fuel economy figure (actual attained: 62.9mpg max; 39.7mpg min) and a modest 109g/km CO2 emissions, which equates to an annual VED, Band B fee of just £20. It seldom feels less than zesty and overtakes and hill-climbing can be tackled easily in its stride.

 

In another departure from the basic 500, its interior is flexible and very spacious. The driver’s seat adjusts every which way and the steering column fulfils both rake and reach requirements. The front passenger seat matches it and rear seat occupants can luxuriate in comfortably bolstered seats, while flipping the split-folding squabs almost quadruples the 245-litres of below-shelf luggage space. Although some smaller personal items can be stored below the boot floor, there are no segregated slots and in-cabin storage is managed by deep door pockets, a two-level glove-box arrangement and the centre console.

 

The cabin of the 500X is a very pleasant place from which to explore the highways and byways, although you will need to invest a couple of grand more, if you desire 4WD, which will enable cross-country forays to become part of the transport package. On the subject of price, the base model is tagged at a moderately competitive £20,095, although the extra items on the test car (18-inch alloys, leather trim, electric sunroof, heated front seats, lane departure warning, ‘Beats’ hi-fi, winter pack and dynamic safety pack) whisk the invoice total to £22,645.

 

DSC_2706_editedThe 500X is beautifully built. It feels and is immensely sturdy and it should be more than dependable enough for most owners. The feel-good factor is high on-board, as the 500X steers fluently and accurately, rides out most road surface imperfections resiliently, performs strongly and not only brakes securely but handles impeccably too. It is a style-centric example of how a crossover should look, being neither as grotesque as the Nissan Juke, nor as over-wrought as the Ford Kuga. In fact, it is very handsome and, unlike the regular 500, a far more masculine machine overall.

 

While not a common sight on our roads, I have noticed that the 500X is growing in popularity, as increasing numbers of buyers cotton-on to its most alluring qualities. Naturally, it has an uphill fight to endure against the Juke and its Qashqai sister, to win outright in the popularity stakes but it is a Fiat that is capable of winning hearts. I like it a lot and I am aware, from the original launch of the model range, that its 4×4 version is also immensely capable in the trickiest of conditions.

 

Conclusion:   To produce a winner straight out of the box is not something that too many carmakers can achieve but the Fiat 500X is more than capable of meeting those expectations. While its slightly retrospective appearance might appear a little ‘clichéd’, the truth is that it can stand confidently alongside any of its rivals and blast them into insignificance. It is an admirable crossover, from a company on the way up.

 

 

 

 

 

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).