First Drive

2019 Fiat 500X First Drive Review | Anchor's away!

The unloved Tigershark engine is gone, but problems remain

2019 Fiat 500X Trekking Plus
2019 Fiat 500X Trekking Plus / Image Credit: Fiat
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  • Engine
    1.3L Turbocharged Inline-4
  • Power
    177 HP / 210 LB-FT
  • Transmission
    9-Speed Automatic
  • Drivetrain
    FWD or AWD
  • Engine Placement
  • Curb Weight
    3,305 LBS (AWD)
  • Towing
    2,000 LBS
  • Seating
  • Cargo
    12.2 Cu. Ft.
  • MPG
    24 City / 30 HWY
  • Base Price

MALIBU, Calif. — We lived with the Fiat 500X for a year and were pleasantly surprised by everything it had to offer but — and this is a big but, a but worthy of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s affection — the entire powertrain.  It’s no small feat that the small crossover was able to charm us despite our distaste for the very thing that makes it move. For 2019’s mid-cycle facelift, Fiat has addressed that exact issue.

Gone is the old, naturally aspirated 2.4-liter inline-four that Fiat called the Tigershark, but we called a boat anchor. It was noisy, unresponsive, and an insult to tiger sharks. We preferred the lower-spec 1.4-liter turbo to the higher-spec 2.4, and suggested that it should be offered on all trims.

Now the sole engine on all trim levels is a turbocharged 1.3-liter with stop-start and Multiair III, Fiat’s third-generation cam-less variable intake valve system. Fiat also eliminated the front-wheel-drive option for 2019, making all 500Xs all-wheel drive. Though the motor is down three horsepower overall — 177 versus the Tigershark’s 180 — it more than makes up for it in torque. The outgoing engine produced 175 lb-ft at a lofty 3,900 rpm, which wasn’t really useful in real-world driving. The 2019 comes with 210 lb-ft at a mere 2,200 rpm, giving drivers significantly more grunt at the low end.

Beyond that, Fiat says the engine is less thirsty than the 2.4-liter — the only engine available in 2018 all-wheel-drive models — returning 24 city and 30 highway mpg. That’s 3 mpg better in the city and 1 on the highway, made possible with more efficient technologies like needle roller bearings around the exhaust cam, a variable displacement oil pump, and an integrated charge-air cooler and exhaust manifold. We'll note that the 2018 500X equipped with front-wheel drive, the 1.4-liter turbocharged engine and six-speed manual transmission is still the most efficient of them all, returning 25 city and 33 highway mpg.

“The engine is about 80 pounds lighter than the 2.4,” chief engineer Adam Remesz told us, putting total curb weight for the AWD model with 17-inch alloys at 3,305 pounds. Improved efficiency also means reduced CO2 emissions, down from 264 grams per mile to 242. According to Remesz, that’s “about the amount expelled by an average adult male running a 10k race.” Sure.

The new mill mostly addresses our biggest gripe with the 500X. The throttle feels peppier, and rolling acceleration is much improved. Unfortunately, it fails to compensate for the second part of the equation, the nine-speed automatic transmission. Programmed for fuel efficiency, it shifts around more than a sugar-addled kindergartner. When climbing hills, it requires constant throttle modulation, and anything but the deepest of floorboard plants results in a delayed reaction off the line.

It’s a shame, really, because the rest of the driving experience is fairly decent for a small crossover. The steering is nicely weighted, and its effort changes depending on the drive mode. Feedback isn’t sports car-like, but paired with the taut suspension, beats a lot of other rivals in its class. It doesn’t bounce around like a Nissan Juke, and doesn’t have that box-on-wheels feel of a Kia Soul.

Turn the drive mode dial to sport, denoted by a little checkered flag, and the transmission holds the gear longer, giving you the full benefit of the low-end turbo torque. The drive Fiat afforded us around Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains wasn’t enough to see what kind of damage that did to the fuel economy, but we’d make the sacrifice in response to leave it in sport all the time. If we returned to Gingerman Raceway, we’re confident the 2019 500X would beat the time we set with the 2017 model.

The traits that helped transcend our scorn for the 2017 powertrain continue to delight. In the mid-size crossover segment, most offerings have dreadfully bland designs that are hard to tell apart from one another. In the compact class, however, designers get to let their pencils loose. Whether the futuristic Transformer-like style of Japanese offerings like the Toyota C-HR, the faux ruggedness of the 500X’s platform sibling the Jeep Renegade, or the retro looks of the Mini Countryman, there are many styles to choose from.

In this department the Fiat 500X’s Italian roots shine, with references to the 1957 Cinquecento updated for the modern age. Its bright colors, clamshell hood, and exterior color-matched inserts on the dash all harken back to the original, and it makes you happy just to look at ‘em. Interior materials appear to be of high quality, especially the soft leather on the door panels. A refreshed steering wheel design and gauge cluster round out the cabin changes.

Fiat doesn’t shy away from little cost-adding touches that you wouldn’t necessarily see on other brands, like color-matched inserts in the new taillights. And sometimes even the cost-cutting bits use clever and designer-y solutions, as in a snap-button to secure the shift boot to the gear selector rather than a locking ring. And unlike the regular 500, the speakers and their prominent Beats branding are hidden from view, thankfully.

Technology-wise, the 2019 500X adds front parking assist and adaptive cruise control, whose controls are refreshingly easy to use. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard, as does remote start, a nice plus on this end of the price spectrum. An updated front fascia includes new headlights with a claimed 20% greater lighting capacity.

The base front-wheel-drive Pop model starts at $26,235, but our optioned-out Trekking tester rang in at an eye-watering $35,075 inclusive of FCA’s relatively high $1,495 destination charge. That seems a bit steep, especially when similarly-equipped alternatives like the Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V, and Hyundai Kona can be had for thousands less. With that kind of coin, you could be getting a larger and generally superior CX-5 or CR-V.

We once labeled the old 500X among our least favorite cars to drive. Its cheery design remains a strong point, there are some welcome tweaks and additions, and the 2019 500X has freed itself from its boat anchor of an engine. We want to like it, but its hyperactive transmission and exorbitant sticker price are still holding it back.

FIAT 500X Information

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