I drove a rented 2018 Fiat 500 this summer in the Italian Alps and thought, "What a dog." Then I drove a new 2019 Fiat 500X this month in the Malibu mountains and thought, "What a blast!"
The difference between the two cars was under the hood. The 500 I drove in Malibu was powered by Fiat's all-new 1.3-liter turbocharged engine. It's a game changer.
Fiat's parent company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, is on a hot streak. The car company in July reported strong vehicle sales and a jump in profits for the second quarter of 2019. But the improved numbers were driven principally by sales of FCA's Ram trucks and new Jeep Gladiator, with the Fiat division taking up the rear.
So it's a good time for a Fiat 500 refresh.
The new engine replaces a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine that many critics found sluggish and underwhelming. The new power plant offers a 35% improvement in torque, from 172 pound-feet with the previous engine to 210 pound-feet with the new one. That's a best-in-segment number, Fiat boasts.
Fuel economy is also up a tick, and carbon dioxide emissions are down.
The new engine also shaved 80 pounds off the weight of the car and allowed designers to replace the old front-wheel-drive transmission with an all-wheel-drive system.
The result is a much sportier driving experience, palpable on city streets and highways and considerably more so in the narrow, twisty Malibu canyons. Gone is that weird torque steering that comes with front-wheel-drive systems — replaced by a more traditional wheel feel as power pushes the car through turns rather than dragging it forward.
The MacPherson suspension system manages the power well. While not quite as go-cart speedy as Fiat's 124 Spider, or the very sporty Abarth version of the 500, the X outfitted this way was a capable curve carver at moderate speeds.
The new engine, already in use in FCA's Jeep Renegade, comes standard in the three trims offered in the X line: Pop, Trekking and Trekking Plus. (Fiat executives coyly declined to say when or whether the new engine would migrate to the 500 or 500L.)
In all three, the engine is connected to a standard nine-speed automatic transmission — sorry, folks, the car cannot be had in North America with a stick shift — that tries to make the most out of 177 horsepower.
On the road, in that configuration, the 500X Trekking Plus model I drove felt planted, stable and grabby in the turns. Over an 80-mile loop from Malibu to Point Mugu to Westlake Village and back again, I really enjoyed the combination of torque, power and handling.
I had the most fun using the car's Sport setting, one of several driving modes offered, with the "manual" gear shift engaged. While this decreases fuel economy, it makes for a much more amusing drive.
Some consumers will really enjoy the standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and will like the adjustable steering wheel, heated front seats and ParkSense parking aids. If they're sitting up front, they'll be satisfied with the headroom and legroom. If they're sitting in the back, or are planning to carry golf bags or multiple suitcases, they may not.
On the other hand, they may gripe that they have to spend an additional $1,395 to get features like lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring and forward collision warning — features that are standard on many other cars in this class.
They may be split on the styling, but I like it. The current design retains some details from the Cinquecento Fiats that I remember from my youth, when they were ubiquitous on Italian streets and not uncommon in America. (My little brother had two at the same time, because, he said, you needed to own two in order to keep one running.) I have read that Fiat produced close to 4 million of the little runabouts between 1957 and 1975.
Those cars were built as cheap, practical transportation. So are these. The entry level Fiat 500 can be had for just over $20,000; the 500X starts at $25,235.
That puts it about even with the other compact utility vehicles in this viciously competitive niche, currently dominated by the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Chevy Equinox, Nissan Rogue and Ford Escape, and joined by the popular Volkswagen Tiguan, Subaru Forester, Hyundai Tucson, Mazda CX-5 and GMC Terrain.
The 500s have a long way to go before they can challenge those nameplates for big sales. Of 1.1 million FCA vehicles sold in 2018, only 8,285 were Fiats, according to numbers complied by KBB.com.
But most of those were Fiat 500s, 500Ls and 500Xs, and 2019 numbers are up. The Xs are becoming the bestselling model in the line.
Fiat's North America brand director, Pieter Hogeveen, joked at the 500X presentation that "obviously we are not chasing volume" with the retro-styled 500s. But the new engine should turn up the volume on this niche player.