Fiat 500X 1.3T Review: Good Engine, Mediocre Everything Else

The new 1.3-liter turbo four is among the 500X’s only highlights.

MALIBU, California—"Fun." That's the word Fiat wanted us to keep in mind during our drive of the updated 2019 500X. Its new turbocharged 1.3-liter engine sounded promising on that front, delivering 177 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque in a smallish package, so perhaps I would find a smile creeping onto my face in on the roads in and around Malibu.

The first impressions were good. The small four-cylinder was unstrained as it hustled the 500X, although it didn't seem enthusiastic to rev either. For the most part, the engine was smooth, with little vibration or harshness on the flat run to the mountains. The ample torque was easily tapped, and the 500X seemed as if it had more to give as we worked up to freeway speeds. Off the line, standard all-wheel drive provides plenty of traction.

The nine-speed automatic transmission is a weak link, though, as it can take some time to downshift and occasionally hunts for gears. In automatic Sport mode, the transmission would hold gears seemingly indefinitely, which is nice, and holding higher gears on downward grades allowed for engine braking (such as it is with a small engine) to come into play. However, in manual mode, the car would occasionally shift automatically or decline to obey a command even when it seemed entirely appropriate to select another ratio. Its unpredictability definitely impacted the fun factor—if you're distracted by what the transmission is doing, you're not exactly focused fully on the drive experience.

Fiat did successfully improve the 500X's EPA mpg figures with the engine swap. Drivers can expect 24 mpg city and 30 mpg highway, up from the previous 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. This is roughly on par with its all-wheel-drive competition, with the Hyundai Kona Ultimate AWD rated for 26/30 mpg and the Honda HR-V AWD 26/31 mpg.

When it came time to hit the twistiest roads, the 500X showed additional signs of weakness. Steering feel is ambiguous at best, with tons of play around center where adding a bit of lock doesn't return much in the way of directional change. As such, navigating the 500X through a curve requires extra steering inputs to stay on line, and extra attention in order to anticipate when and how much the front wheels will respond to steering-wheel movements. As one example in the segment, the Kona has much better steering.

The 500X's styling remains a standout, which is perhaps why it didn't really get futzed with in the update. Its rounded shape has enough of the regular 500's retro flavor to look cool, but iit doesn't look old. The plastic cladding even looks alright. The ride quality and handling don't match the car's looks, however. It's firm but comfortable enough in a straight line, but it sort of falls apart when the road gets twisty, with far more body roll—it's exacerbated by the steering issues—that you might expect given the aforementioned firmness.

Positives include a relatively quiet cabin and an unobtrusive engine stop-start system. The dual-pane sunroof is neat and brings an airiness to what is really a compact hatchback in terms of interior space. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are offered with the Uconnect infotainment system, although the 7.0-inch touchscreen in the 500X seemed perhaps underpowered in that it seemed slower to respond than similar setups in other Fiat Chrysler models.

While a proximity key and pushbutton ignition are standard on all models, the start button is placed where the steering-column-mounted key slot was on previous 500Xs, contributing to the interior's quirky ergonomics. Fiat also fits standard remote start, a boon for buyers in colder regions.  Our top-trim 2019 Trekking Plus test car had a thorough suite of safety equipment, but most of these advanced systems, such as collision warning with active braking, lane-departure warning and assist, and parking assist require one to opt for higher trim levels or packages.

And now we get to price. The Trekking Plus's starting MSRP of $30,440 seems staggering, and the car I drove cost $34,325—a considerable sum given some obvious feature omissions, including ventilated seats and a power passenger seat. That figure also pits it against roomier and better SUVs like the Honda CR-V and Mazda CX-5. (The 2019 500X starts at $25,735; the 2020 model adds a black roof option but hasn't been priced yet.)

The new 1.3-liter four is truly good, and the refreshed Fiat 500X offers a remarkable amount of power despite the tiny engine, but the rest of the package still trails its competitors. I'd have loved to see if a 500 with this engine could bring the fun missing from the 500X, but that's now off the table. And if Fiat's U.S. sales don't improve, its entire lineup soon could be, too.

2019 Fiat 500X Trekking Plus AWD Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE $30,940/$34,325 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 1.3L turbocharged SOHC 16-valve inline-4; 177 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 210 lb-ft @ 2,200 rpm
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD crossover
EPA MILEAGE 24/30 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 167.2 x 70.7 x 63.7 in
WHEELBASE 101.2 in
WEIGHT 3,305 lb
0-60 MPH N/A
TOP SPEED N/A
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