By Jim Bray
The crowded small utility vehicle market seems to get more crowded nearly every week, with just about every carmaker involved in the competition. Into this market drives Fiat, with a ute version of its little 500 people's car.
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It's the Fiat 500X Trekker, and it's actually kind of neat - at least mostly. The regular 500 reminds me of a Smart car wannabe, which isn't a good thing, but the 500X Trekker ups the ante quite a bit, adding all-wheel drive to the mix - and it's actually a pretty decent system, too: I took a 500X onto the off-road course at the Canadian Car of the Year TestFest and it surprised me by performing better under those hilly, rutty and muddy conditions than some taller vehicles - such as the Mazda CX-3 and Honda HR-V, though to be honest I'd rather have either of those vehicles than the little Fiat. And it was the Mazda that won the category (SUV/ CUV under $35K), not the Fiat, and I think the Mazda was the best choice among the competitors.
Hey, I actually predicted a winner! Alert the media!
Losing its category doesn't mean the little Fiat is a slouch, of course; only one vehicle can win (well, unless there's a tie). But there are reasons why the plucky little Italian didn't make the cut and I'll try to outline some of them here, though of course it reflects my opinion alone.
The Fiat 500X Trekker reminds me of what Mini is doing with its all-wheel drive versions, such as the angry-looking Clubman. That is, they're offering more robust and, arguably, practical versions of their base cars and it's hard to complain about being given more choices than fewer.
I came away from my week with the 500X Trekker - my first real test session in a Fiat - not a huge fan of the car, but I can see why people would like it. It's kind of cute, it works well off the road and when optioned up it offers a lot of state of the art stuff. Fiat Canada's sample carried a base price of $30,690, but it came in at $38,490 sans government piling on, thanks to its list of options. At 30 grand it seems like a pretty good buy, but when you put it side by side against other 40 grand-ish AWD cars, such as Mercedes-Benz' GLA 250 4MATIC, the Lexus IS 300 and others, it doesn't stand up as well, coming off as a tad unrefined, thanks mostly to its transmission. Then again, unless you're comparing it with the Mini (which can be priced similarly, depending on your choice of options) you're pretty well doing apples-to-oranges comparisons and that's always dangerous.
Anyway, powering the sample Fiat was a 2.4 litre Tigershark four cylinder engine that puts out 180 horses and 175 pound feet of torque. That isn't bad power/torque from a four but the really jerky nine speed automatic transmission to which it's connected was just awful. To avoid this, you can order your Fiat with a 1.4 litre engine and a six speed manual transmission, but only on the front drive version. Still, if you can forgive the lazy and jerky nine speed automatic, you'll find that the 500 is pretty fun to drive and handles very well.
The Trekker version comes with unique front and rear fascias, "Satin Chrome" trim and 17 inch wheels with painted pockets. A "Satin Metallic" instrument panel and brushed aluminum console continue the theme inside so you don't forget what you're driving.
Inside is an interesting mix of Fiat and Chrysler. It looks mostly Fiat but if you're familiar with current Chrysler interfaces and their Uconnect multimedia stuff, you'll be right at home. And it all works well.
A dial on the centre console lets your choose from Sport, Automatic, or Rain/Snow modes. Sport mode, which is not surprisingly the most fun, changes the shift points to allow higher revving of the engine.
Standard features include premium cloth bucket seats (the front passenger's folds flat for storage, and of course the rear bench splits and folds as well), power windows all around (and all of them feature auto-down, with the fronts also offering auto-up), redundant controls on the tilt/telescoping steering wheel. Heated front seats and steering wheel are available, as is a wonderful remote start system (which comes in really handy on cold or hot days), proximity entry and push button start/stop, Bluetooth for phone and tunes, and a reversible and height adjustable cargo floor.
Fiat's sample also came with a thousand dollars' worth of Red Tricoat paint, dual zone air conditioning, power adjustable front seats, and windshield wiper de-icer. It also had a driver's assist group of features - front and rear park assist and a backup camera - a navigation group and the larger of the Uconnect screens offered. It also had a nifty-but-noisy-when-open dual pane sunroof, Beats premium audio system (well, it "beats" some premium audio systems, but not others…), a compact spare tire and upgraded wheels and tires.
Take this for what it's worth - it's only conjecture on my part - but I wonder if Fiat may be going after the same type of consumer that Honda did with its Element - young and/or active folk looking for a funky yet practical vehicle they can take into the boonies if they so choose. And as such, the Fiat 500X Trekker will undoubtedly fit the bill well.
If Fiat could only put all of the car's many good points into a $30,000 Canadian package they might have a real winner. As it sits, however, the price seems a tad dear.
Copyright 2015 Jim Bray
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