Saturday 16 February 2019

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Cork Independent

Motors

Italians do it better

Wednesday, 16th January, 2019 4:45pm

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve expressed my dislike for small crossovers.

By and large (or small, to be more accurate) they tend to be not very pretty, not very good to drive, and not very practical. Give me a conventional family hatchback any day.

Except…

Except I’ve found one of the few that I actually kinda like, in spite of myself.

Fiat has become something of a forgotten brand in Ireland, thanks to a double-whammy of a cultural memory of unreliability and rust, and a shrunken national dealer network.

Which is more than a little unfair. Fiat makes good cars, believe it or not, and the old rep for poor quality is really little more than a folk tale these days.

And you’d expect that even a brand such as Fiat, introducing a car such as the 500X into a market gone mad for crossovers, would be able to just sit back and lazily watch the cash rolling in. Not so, sadly.

Irish buyers have largely ignored the 500X since its introduction in 2015, to the point where one senior Fiat Ireland executive has described it as “the best-kept motoring secret in Ireland”.

It’s about time to break some of that secret out into the open, and helpfully Fiat has given us a good excuse to drive the 500X again by facelifting it and fitting it with new engines.

Fiat’s new 1.0 litre Firefly engine is Euro 6D compliant (that’s the latest round of emissions regulations) and fitted with gasoline particle filter (GPF - because even petrol engines produce those little, nasty particle emissions, just like a diesel), the new turbo engines are the result of over 75,000 hours of virtual tests, 60,000 hours of real-life off-vehicle tests and five million kilometres clocked up on roads worldwide to confirm their robustness and reliability.

Developed on a modular structure, whereby Fiat can add or subtract single 330cc cylinders to create smaller or bigger engines, this one is a three-cylinder 1.0 litre powerplant that delivers 120hp and 190Nm of torque and is paired with a six-speed manual transmission.

As with all small three-cylinder engines, it’s rather sweet to drive. There’s a nice ‘thrummy’ noise as you rev it, and while it’s not exactly over-endowed with power, work it hard and keep the light, accurate gearshift on the fly, and you can actually extract some very decent performance out of the 500X.

A 10.9 second 0-100km/h time is not the quickest around, but it’s a shade quicker than a diesel-engined equivalent, and aside from a little more noise than we were expecting from the engine, rather quieter too.

There’s also a lot of new safety equipment, although inevitably on a small, relatively affordable car, many of the more high-tech items are on the options list.

You do get traffic sign recognition, intelligent speed assist and lane assist as standard, while blind spot alert, adaptive cruise control and city brake control are all available as extras.

In the 500X’s cabin, Fiat has given things a good going-over, including a new seven inch uConnect Touchscreen which comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard. There’s a uConnect Live app, which you can download to your phone and which comes with Eco:Drive and my:Car functions which allow drivers to monitor their driving style to improve the economy and running costs of their car. It’s almost (almost) like having Formula One-style telemetry and data readouts. Nice.

On the outside, you’ll spot the updated 500X by the fact that it has new LED headlights and new lower-mounted foglights, also with LED bulbs. There are also ‘hollow-centre’ brake lights at the back, similar to those found on the dinky little 500 hatchback.

Doubtless, as with the badge, Fiat will be hoping that some of the smaller 500’s glamour rubs off on the larger 500X (the two cars actually share very little under the skin).

What’s it like to drive, though? This is usually the bugbear of small crossovers. Car makers, knowing that we buy such vehicles mostly on the basis of how they look, generally don’t bother much investing in dynamic development, assuming that good enough is good enough. Which is a big part of why I don’t like them…

The 500X doesn’t reverse that entirely, it must be said. It’s not as if it brings GTI-like dynamics to the class or anything.

But it’s actually really likeable, and that starts with the steering wheel. It’s a perfectly round item (no faddish squared-off section) and I’d swear it’s the same one found in the much more expensive Alfa Romeo Giulia saloon. It has the same firm, slim wheel rim that slides so nicely through your palms, the same tactility. It just feels really, really nice.

Handling-wise, the 500X is safe and secure, with just an occasional touch of flair. You can tell it’s been designed mostly for urban use, because in spite of the faux-off-roader styling, it actually gives its best around town.

The steering is sharp and direct, so you can flick that stubby nose into tight corners with ease, and the generally decent all-round visibility is a boon when cutting through traffic. The torquey little FireFly engine works well in town too, although we’d like to see it deliver better all-round economy.

To be fair, in most cases, if you’re looking at buying a small crossover, you really shouldn’t. They’re mostly not very good cars.

The 500X seems to be a pleasing exception, though. It has enough of that old-school Fiat brio that it feels engaging and enjoyable, and that’s a genuine rarity in this segment.

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