Long-Term

Crossing the Country in Our Four Seasons 2016 Fiat 500X Trekking

Living in Fiat’s world: the ups and downs of shifting for yourself

Long-Term 2016 FIAT 500X Update: Summer 2017 ( 3 of 5 ) Miles to date: 17,519

Our Four Seasons 2016 Fiat 500X Trekking and I have been around the world together… or so it seems. By the time I grabbed its keys from the slippery fingers of the West Coast HQ staff, the 500X had trekked its way as far as the Rocky Mountains and back, accruing about 5,000 miles more than our 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club had when I drove it from California to Michigan last year at roughly the same time in its Four Seasons cycle. The 2016 Fiat 500X has made it to Big Bear and Malibu, San Francisco and Buttonwillow Raceway, Las Vegas, and Palisades, Colorado and back. These trips plus the L.A. staff’s long, miserable daily commutes were enough to put more than 14k on the Fiat’s clock.

This cross-country, three time zone drive, clearly, would be much different from last year’s. No attempts to keep the top down all the way, no counting gear-changes like Jim Garner at Monaco in the opening scene from “Grand Prix.” I even left the Miata fitted luggage at home because there’s plenty of room to spread out. There will also be plenty of gear changes.

At El Segundo HQ Monday morning, a couple of colleagues warn me of staff antipathy toward Fiat’s B-segment crossover, especially its 180-horsepower MultiAir 2.4-liter four, the nine-speed automatic its coupled to, the extra weight of its soft roader all-wheel-drive system, and its milk jug-sized gas tank and marginal fuel economy, which I was told make stops for gas a bit too frequent.

I’m determined to make it back to the Detroit Bureau by the weekend, but I’m throwing in a couple of side-trips off President Eisenhower’s boring old west-east Interstate. Whereas a year ago, I had some fun driving the Four Seasons Miata out from Paso Robles in central California and through Yosemite before connecting with I-15 and ultimately I-70, my route this time will not tax even the 500X’s chassis: High-tail it out of L.A. on I-15 past Las Vegas, hang a right onto I-70 at Big Rock Candy Mountain, Utah, continue through the Western Continental Divide in Colorado, connect with I-76 outside of Denver, merge onto I-80 in Western Nebraska, continue through Iowa and Northwest Illinois, and then detour up to New Glarus, Wisconsin, to get the freshest Spotted Cow available. Phew. Then, if there’s time, avoid Chicago and instead head up I-41 past Green Bay, onto Michigan Highway 2 into Escanaba, in search of drivers’ roads in the Upper Peninsula for future features.

High-tailing it out of L.A. never goes well when you’re trying to beat rush hour traffic and make it to the desert outpost of Barstow by 2 p.m. As soon as I fire up the MultiAir four, the dash warns me that at 14,530 miles, it’s time for an oil change.

Next, I make stops at Peet’s for late-morning coffee, Uniqlo for the light jacket I failed to pack, and to an In-N-Out past the traffic jams of Greater L.A. for lunch. Late lunch, some time after 4 (or 7 p.m. in my home time zone). Late dinner, about 11 p.m., is Tacos El Jeffe in Cedar City, Utah, which my wife found online from back in Michigan. My chicken taco salad is tasty and fresh, and the restaurant in a strip mall off the main drag is open 7 a.m. to midnight.

After dinner, I fuel up at a Cedar City BP, the odo coincidentally flipping over to 15,000-flat. It’s my second fill-up in some 470 miles, and for the last 251.5 miles, I’ve averaged 59 mph and 24.5 mpg. I’m not impressed, even though these regular-unleaded refuels typically come in below $30 a tank.

The next morning, I skip the free Holiday Inn Express cardboard-flavored breakfast bar in favor of the Koosharem Café, which looks to be close by, but is a 31-mile drive from the H.I.E., and away from the section of I-70 that skirts the motel. It’s worth it, a hot breakfast with taste, and I get a few happy snaps of the Fiat against a mountain backdrop, with late-spring snow in the foreground. But moving the 500X around and shifting into Park without shutting off the engine, another warning appears in addition to the oil-change admonishment: Faulty electronic parking brake, which I haven’t even used. Argh. Soon after, I also get an airbag malfunction warning. None of these convince me to look for the closest Fiat dealer, which probably is in Colorado, anyway.

As elevations continue to climb, I try shifting the Fiat’s nine gears myself, an exercise that leads to more frustration. The tendency on the long, straight, boring Interstate is to get it into ninth and improve on the mediocre fuel efficiency. The tranny won’t let you into ninth (toggling the shifter in its dual-gate — there are no wheel column paddles) until at least 70 mph. What’s worse, you can be chugging along at 80 mph in top gear, running less than 2,000 rpm, but when you hit the next tall uphill stretch, you need to quickly toggle down by four or five gears or risk being passed by … everybody, except maybe by other cars equipped with this transmissions.

Shifts are not the least bit crisp and there’s no satisfaction to my efforts, though I keep trying all the way into Nebraska. Since you need to quickly toggle your way down into fifth gear, it’s easy to miss a downshift and find yourself looking for torque in seventh or eighth, instead.

It’s somewhat more manageable in Nebraska and Iowa — though Iowa isn’t as flat as many think, especially as you get close to the Mississippi. It’s drizzling as I pull out of the motel parking lot in Ogallala, Nebraska, and I get yet another dashboard alert: The tire pressure monitoring system warns of a low left rear tire. It takes three gas stations off I-80 before I find one that has a tire gauge for sale and a pump that works. After refilling the tire, I don’t see the TPMS alert again.

Nebraska gives me the chance to pay more attention to the Fiat’s seat comfort, which is marginal. The driver’s side power lumbar control is a nice touch, though I cannot find a comfortable position — the lumbar support is too high on the seatback to do me much good. Worse, while the seat contour invites me to sit back, the hard plastic headrest, which has the cool look of a mid-century Nelson Marshmallow sofa cushion, orders me to sit up straight. No matter how I try to reposition the seat, the headrest wants to push my head so it looks down at the bottom of the steering wheel, or lift my back off the seatback.

I press on to New Glarus, Wisconsin, where a bit of luggage repositioning makes room for Spotted Cow, Moon Man, and Two Sisters, tucked under the luggage cover. Dinner with my parents in Metro Milwaukee follows, then its up to Marinette for the night before I search (in vain) for an honest drivers’ road. By early evening, I’m humming across the Mackinac Bridge into the Southern Peninsula, and I’m home by late Friday night.

I refuel in Royal Oak the next morning. I’ve driven 2,989 miles, on 11 fill-ups.

The long drive proves what I suspected on the long lead introduction in Greater L.A. a couple of years ago: that the chassis is the Fiat 500X’s best feature. It’s firm enough on the on- and off-ramps to allow a bit of excessive speed, with benign, marginal understeer. The ride is firm and a bit bouncy, owing to the b-segment SUV’s short wheelbase, but it’s reasonably comfortable, even on Great Lakes states’ roads.

The wheezy, big four has nothing wrong with it that a better automatic (or a good manual, though I’m not holding out for such a possibility) wouldn’t cure. As for the warning lights, I took the 500X Trekking into the Fiat dealer the week I got home. The parking brake malfunction was a defec, handled by a technical service bulletin. It and the false airbag warning was handled under warranty.

I had the dealer change the oil and plug the left-rear tire ($95.06, including $15 for the tire plug) so I could take the 500X on an upcoming road trip, this time to Pittsburgh and back. Heading out of the dealer lot, my drop-off driver already well on her way, I see a new warning on the dash: The passenger-side daytime running lamp has a malfunction. I’ll handle that after Pittsburgh.

Our 2016 Fiat 500X Trekking

PRICE $26,230/$27,730 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.4L SOHC 16-valve I-4/180 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 175 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 21/30 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 168.2 x 75.5 x 63.7 in
WHEELBASE 101.2 in
WEIGHT 3,292 lb
0-60 MPH 9.8 sec
TOP SPEED N/A

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