I finally did it: I'm a dad. The funny thing is, I've always owned dad cars, even before I needed to. Owning anything with less than four doors never made much sense, which is how I ended up with a stable of souped-up grandpa cars from the Sixties and Seventies. Now that I'm a father, the '74 Oldsmobile sedan I brought my wife and son home from the hospital in seems a bit dated. And that, my friends, is how I found myself on this quest to find the perfect new dad car. The latest installment: The 2019 Fiat 500X, tested, in this case, in Italy.
The 2019 Fiat 500X, By the Numbers (European model)
- Price as Tested: €25,210 ($28,650)
- Powertrain: turbocharged 1.3-liter gasoline engine, 150 horsepower, 199 pound-feet of torque; nine-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel drive
- Fuel Economy: 42 mpg combined (Fiat Chrysler's EU figure)
- 0-60 MPH: If you're curious, you're kinda missing the point
- Random dad fact: The Fiat 500X sits on the same GM Fiat Small Wide 4x4 platform that underpins the Jeep Renegade, although the Jeep is known to be more capable off-road.
Golden sunshine and a verdant, mountainous landscape surrounded me as I sipped on a glass of Nero d'Avola in a garden outside Palermo, Italy on a recent afternoon. I let the warmth soak into my skin, eager for the Vitamin D of which I'd been deprived during another cold New York winter. The carbonara my wife had made for lunch tasted better than the same dish back home; same with the wine. The sun even felt better.
That's how it is in the Mediterranean, where the sun shines brightly year-round, the food is fresh, and the populace—long accustomed to a European aesthetic —moves at a slower, more human pace than we tend to in America, one that somehow heightens the visceral pleasures of life. But could the forces that strengthen the merits of food and wine also bolster the driving experience? Depends. Sure, the winding mountain roads and painting-worthy scenery help...but in a country where streets can be absurdly narrow and gasoline costs about $6 per gallon, can driving really be all that enjoyable?
Of course—if the car is small, doesn't use too much fuel, and has enough room for my family and our pile of vacation junk. Enter the Fiat 500X, FCA's stylish compact crossover. It's essentially the same car offered in the United States (aside from some tweaks made so it would conform to American safety standards).
Italian homes are generally smaller than American ones, the towns more densely packed with building; because of it, the streets tend to be pretty narrow. So it makes sense that cars are usually smaller there, too. There are exceptions, of course: You'll see wealthy folks living in literal palaces and driving German land yachts, usually at high speed along the autostrada. But aside from food, most people in Italy do with less. That's why the 500X is a right-sized car for the place, even if it may feel a little tight in the U.S.
It's large enough inside to fit five adults, albeit snugly. For those of us with bambini to cart around, there's enough space to stuff a car seat and a couple of passengers in the second row. Infant seats, with their recumbent position, are a bit tricky to wedge between the two front seats, but the more-upright toddler seats fit okay, providing the front seat passengers aren't super tall. The LATCH anchors are un-shrouded, but it can be tricky to get standard LATCH buckles onto them, because they sit very close to the seat upholstery.
Once everyone has their assigned seat, it's pretty much smooth sailing. The seats are comfortable, visibility is good, and there's enough cargo space—14.1 cubic feet behind the back seats, or 39.8 cubes with the seats folded flat—to accommodate the stroller (a smaller one than we'd normally carry in the U.S.), a diaper bag, groceries, all of our vacation luggage, the car seat (and the baby, of course) and even one additional back seat passenger. As my wife pointed out, this setup probably wouldn't fly with most American buyers. But in Europe, where a simple drive through a small city can turn into a tortuous "How the hell am I going to get out of here" fiasco, a small car makes sense in most cases.
Especially when it's time to shell out for fuel. I couldn't tell you what kind of fuel economy I was achieving, because I was buying liters of gasoline instead of gallons, and every purchase was for 50 to 70 Euros rather than $40 or so dollars. I figured the people I saw driving big cars (there weren't that many of them, and most were diesel-powered) must be the same ones who can afford to live in ornate Baroque palazzii attended by service staff and equipped with underground garages.
Although I've listed FCA's European fuel economy figures for the 500X, the way the EU calculates fuel economy might not make sense to an American audience accustomed to more of a use-based system. A North American 500X equipped with the 1.4-liter turbo and a six-speed manual (the nine-speed automatic wasn't made available with the 500X in America until this year, when it was offered with a new, more powerful 1.3-liter turbo) is rated by the EPA at 25 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway. That sounds about right, given the car's height and weight.
Stop worrying about fuel economy, though, and you'll find the 500X is a blast to drive—especially on curvy roads. It's not a sports car, but compared with many small crossovers, it handles and brakes well, and the acceleration from its turbo mill is more than adequate. Best of all, the nine-speed automatic transmission seemed always to be in the right gear to get the most power out of the little engine. Around town, torque at low engine speeds pulled the car from corner to corner with ease. And out on the highway, the car had enough power to pass quickly and maintain triple-digit speeds (in kilometers per hour, of course).
The 500X got a light redesign for the 2018 model year in the European Union and 2019 in North America. Euro NCAP, which is basically the European Union's version of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), doesn't have ratings for the most recent version. But the body hasn't really changed, so the previous-generation stats seem relevant. The older model scored four out of five stars in Euro NCAP, getting dinged most heavily for its pedestrian protection and active safety features, which have improved since the last time Euro NCAP rated the car. IIHS hasn't tested the new 500X yet either, but the 2018 US model scored well in crash testing (though its headlights did not). Out on the road, I found the little Fiat's active safety features more like overactive safety features—in particular, the emergency braking system and the parking sensors, which I turned off. But that's not a problem unique to FCA's vehicles.
The 500X is a little pricey for its size by American standards; it starts at just under $20,000, but most of the cars on the dealership lot will be closer to $30,000. When you consider that you can get a larger vehicle like the Subaru Crosstrek for less money, the New Dad-worthiness of the 500X becomes questionable. Even the Honda HR-V offers more space for less money. But—and I know this is subjective—neither of those cars have the 500X's good looks, or fun details like the retro-chic body-colored dash panel. Also, all 2019 500X models sold in the U.S. will come standard with the 1.3-liter turbo and all wheel-drive. That's sure to boost their appeal in snow-prone states.
The long and the short of it is that the 500X is a great family car for Europe. As Americans, we have the market cornered on space, convenience, and profligate consumption. For reasons related to the general availability of resources, people here generally choose larger vehicles because they can, not because they should. That's not to say the 500X wouldn't make a great family car—especially for a family living in the city, where parking is limited. But like putting solar panels on the roof, wearing Italian suits, or driving a Tesla, the choice to buy a small Fiat is essentially an aesthetic one in this country.
For my part, I'd love to see one of these sitting in my driveway as much as I'd enjoy tossing it in and out of small gaps in thick traffic. But I, like many Americans, would probably choose something larger. I suppose being raised here has ruined me—but hey, we have the space, and I have nothing against minivans, which as we all know are the ultimate in family transportation. Besides, what child doesn't enjoy more space to play around in?