Break the mould with X factor
Fiat adds space and comforts to build a 500 for the family
THERE is finally a Fiat 500 that works for a family.
The 1950s original, called the Cinquecento, might have done the job at a (big) pinch in Italy but the born-again 500 has struggled in Australia for anyone with more than a dog or a couple of friends to carry.
Now we have the 500X. It looks like a regular 500 from a distance but is much bigger when you get up close. Jump inside and there is real room for four adults and the sort of breathing space and comfort I’ve craved from the 500.
It’s not a perfect car, given the cost, shortage of boot space and the nine-speed automatic in the Carsguide test car is really only an eight-speed and not particularly friendly — but it’s way better for me than most of the mini-SUVs in showrooms.
The X-factor has been added to the 500 thanks to a joint development program that twinned the supersized 500 with the all-new Jeep Renegade. But they are only twins under the skin, with very different bodywork and driving dynamics.
Even the funk factor, so important for sales to 20- and 30-somethings, is way different between the Fiat and Jeep arrivals and that runs right down to embossing on plastic parts and the layout of the glovebox.
The other change is pricing, as the starting sticker for the 500X has been held at $28,500 while Jeep has slashed up to $2500 from the Renegade, bringing the base price down to $28,000 after early sales resistance.
There’s plenty to be said on that front about the impact of the Australian dollar’s slide, which increased the price of the 500X and Renegade by more than $4000 from their original target, but not today.
After an introduction to the 500X last year, when I was happy but not totally convinced, it’s good to get some family time at home.
The co-driver is happy and says she much prefers it to a Mini or a lot of the pseudo SUVs that run through the garage, while the six-year-old is comfy and smiling. He picks it several times from a range of rivals including a Mercedes-Benz C63 and says it definitely deserves his tick.
The test car is a fully loaded all-wheel drive 500X, so I tackle a bit of muddy track to confirm it will do the sort of gentle offroad stuff I would tackle in a Subaru. It’s enough for me, and the sort of people who want a bit of security for gravel-road travel or a weekend in the snow.
The baby petrol turbo engine is eager and light on fuel, but I’m not remotely happy with the automatic gearbox. At its best, the changes are light and easy but it gets confused a lot about what I want and holds a high gear for too long or refuses to shift quickly up through its ratios.
As for the nine-speed claim, it will only hold eighth at 110km/h on the freeway.
So, unless you live on the Stuart Highway without a limit, or drive a 500X in Europe, the top ratio is irrelevant and useless. And it’s only an eight-speeder.
I like the ride comfort and grip in the all-wheel drive X,
which is slightly firm but not too sporty. The steering feel is good, the controls and well laid out and I like the dials and even the two-storey glovebox with two separate lids.
The seats are great, finally wide enough for me and with good support, the cabin is quiet, the audio works well and there is plenty of electronic safety gear.
On the safety front, we’re still waiting for an ANCAP score but it’s likely to make five stars.
It can also tow 1200kg, which would be fine for a trailer with dirt bikes or a light pop-up camper.
The quality in the cabin is fine, the lights are very good and it’s easy to park.
But the boot space is more pinched than I expect, particularly for an airport pickup with a couple of weary travellers who have been in Europe for close to a month. One of their overfull suitcases eventually shares the back seat, which is not good.
The boot could and should be deeper and even the load- through space into the rear seat is not good enough for a mountain bike with the front wheel in place. But the X-car would handle a pram and that’s the obvious challenge, since the family Fiat is really for people who put form ahead of function for a lot of the time.
So the 500X emerges as the sort of car that a lot of modern families will appreciate, and way more practical than one of the new-age SUV tiddlers — Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V among them — which are doing so well. It’s more costly at the start, and a lot more costly if its fully loaded like the tester, but still a good family choice.
For me, it also works a lot better than any Mini I have driven (the new Clubman is just around the corner so that may change).
All-up and allin, despite the gearbox and the limited boot space, I like the 500X more than enough to give it The Tick.