Friday, July 21, 2017

Rapid Rental Review: Fiat 500x MultiJet

All photos by the author.
The vehicle: Fiat's cuddly-looking small crossover, built in Italy on the same line with the equally cartoonish Jeep Renegade. 1.6 (I think) MultiJet diesel powerplant, six-speed manual transmission. Rented from Europcar in Gare du Nord train station, Paris. (Note: If you're renting from someone other than Sixt there, ask me for directions. Rental desks are impossible to find for the uninitiated. Also, this is what I got when I reserved a "Fiat 500 or similar"; I expected "similar" to mean size, not model name.)

The setting: Road trip from Paris to Tours, with a side excursion to a conveniently-positioned Le Mans, to check out ch√Ęteaus and get our fill of debatably functional pre-Enlightenment furniture.

Driving: I strongly encourage everyone who mindlessly repeats the rote dogma about how everyone would/should buy a car (preferably a wagon) with a diesel motor and manual transmission to give this thing a try. The torque curve is more farm implement than road car: a decent slug of thrust right off idle which quickly goes flat as revs climb to even moderate numbers. There's not much sense in running it above 2500 rpm (redline is 4500), and that ironically narrow power band gets frustrating in city traffic where the driver needs to shift almost as often as James Garner at Monaco in Grand Prix. After a while one tends to hold it a gear higher than usual, try to lean on the torque, and hope for the best around the epidemic spread of roundabouts that dot most two-lanes and small town streets.

Very happy otherwise rolling along on b-roads with 70 or 90 kilometer-per-hour speed limits, decent on autoroutes limited to 130 (observation: French drivers are quite respectful of speed limits), strained trying for literally anything over that number. The stop-start system did what it was supposed to do without drawing attention to itself short of the noisy crank to start the diesel; the defeat button is prominently placed but there was no reason not to leave it on.

The shifter is basically easy but has no feel or finesse - you glonk it from gate to gate. Glonking it into sixth requires a bit of annoying extra effort to keep it from slipping back into fourth, kind of like a reverse CAGS. Six gears is about two too many here; the motor happily tolerates skips, shifting 1-2-4-6 or 1-3-5-6 or whatever, with the intermediate gears mostly in play to run the motor in the narrow range that keeps the fussy upshift/downshift light content at moderate speeds. The clutch in this one wasn't as smooth as I would have liked.

Handling is typical crossover blah, slightly top-heavy and deliberate and numb if not outright awkward. Didn't try anything ambitious due to traffic/road conditions and the presence of an ambitious-driving-disliking passenger, but have zero reason to expect anything stimulating as speeds increase. (We did run the length of the Mulsanne Straight, but Joest is perhaps understandably still not returning my emails.) Brakes are surprisingly good: plenty of stopping power, nice modulation.

Switching between Eco and Sport on the drive mode selector between the front seats produced trivial results; didn't see the point in messing with the off-road setting in our travels when the furthest we went off-road was a curbhopping U-turn when we missed the turn to the Mulsanne and the occasional dirt parking lot. Fuel economy seemed at first to be alarmingly bad for a small diesel motor, but the ticking of the fuel gauge was more an indicator of the 500x's small tank than its large thirst. I didn't keep accurate track of mileage, but over the course of about 360 miles/600 kilometers we went through slightly more than one 48-liter/12-and-change-gallon tankful.

Sitting: Driver's seat was a tad narrow for your somewhat ursine author; Wonderful One claimed to be quite comfortable. Okay visibility for everything except backing up where the reverse sensors proved invaluable (and even then having a spotter helped). Seating position is typical crossover, slightly high but not Kenworthish, with a mild step up.

The steering wheel was covered in a downright odd grade of very soft, almost glovelike leather unrepeated in the interior. Flip side is that the stalk controls felt cheap and ill-fitted.

I'd like to have a long conversation with the staff that designed the instrument panel, who apparently prioritized anything other than what one usually looks for in an instrument panel:

That circular center display can be configured through a bizarre variety of settings using the switches on the left steering wheel spoke - longitudinal and lateral g-meters? - but sidelines the speedo and tach to undeserved margin positions. A speedo repeat with huge numbers can be displayed among what feels like several dozen options, but something more like Audi's virtual dash display or even the arrangement in the Camaro would be welcome.

The air conditioner was simply great, with output that approached classic GM pre-R134 levels of frost and controls that weren't too terribly fiddly (although aiming for the right button could require a few seconds of eyes-off-the-road hunting).

The cabin's general comfort and room belies the luggage situation:
All clumsy amateurish color manipulation by the author as well, but at least you get more detail this way.
That's two overhead-bin-sized suitcases and one knockoff Israeli paratrooper briefcase/man purse, and that's it - the baggage compartment is essentially full. You can carry a couple pizzas on top, but anything more cubic is in a bad situation. No idea what you're supposed to do if you have one normal suitcase per passenger who may be sitting in the other available seats; turn our two suitcases sideways and move the man bag to the cabin and you might get a third in there, but Fiat's fondness for stylish curves over sensible packaging means it'll be uneasily close - and forget getting four to fit.

Shutting that rear hatch betrayed a slightly shoddy feel, as if the fasteners there weren't totally holding together. Our 500x turned over 30,000 km while we had it and the finish seemed to be mostly good otherwise, but that weird not-so-little sense of flimsiness makes me wonder about the long-term durability situation.

Concluding: I'm pressed to think of anything exciting or alluring about those two days with the 500x. It did what we needed it to do without meaningful complaint, but without really adding anything distinctly positive - or even distinct - to the experience.

After a certain point I admitted to myself that I would have been happier driving the Jetta. It would have worked at least as well as, and in many cases better than, the Fiat. And this comparison would doubtless hold for any other good small sedan: a Mazda3, a Focus, a Civic, an Impreza. In everything from dynamics to accommodations to build quality, the 500x struggled to make a case for itself.

At a risk of overgeneralization, let's extend this out: if this is at all representative, why do people buy small crossovers? Aside from possible all-weather considerations (which, in my experience seeing numerous ditched CR-Vs around Ithaca, reflect expectations which reality does not match) they're supposed to be capable medium-sized vehicles with plenty of space and comfort. Are they really? Marketing hype and fashion aside, I wonder if a literally measured appreciation would show some pretty harsh truths to the mindset powering the crossover crush.