Is the grass greener on the other side of the fence? James samples a manual diesel Fiat 500X on European soil to find out.
I'm sure you are familiar with the old saying, where the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence? It is a very human trait to always think that what we don’t have will be better than what we do.
Take the 2016 Fiat 500X Lounge for example. It’s a car we at CarAdvice have tried to like, but the cute and fun styling and well-rounded feature set have been overshadowed by comparatively high pricing, thirsty petrol engines and overly complex drivetrain options.
It doesn’t translate to Australia, is the cry. Things should be the same as they are in Europe, you say.
So, when given the chance to drive a European specification 500X in its natural habitat, we thought what better way to see just how green that other grass is.
The Lounge specification is very similar regardless of which hemisphere you're in. Hold a mirror up to the interior of an Australian-spec 500X and you could be looking at a European one.
It’s the same 6.5-inch U-Connect infotainment system, the same leather seats, the same driver assistance inclusions and the same funky, yet functional, design.
Even the outside is essentially the same, the Lounge in Europe sitting above the Pop and Pop Star variants, and below the Cross Plus as it does in Australia. There are two other trim grades offered in the left-hook market though, a basic 500X-line trim and a de-featured 4x4 Cross model.
It’s under the skin where the separation starts, and where the most notable points of contention are.
Rather than the 125kW/250Nm 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine that is mated to an AWD nine-speed automatic driveline in Australia, the European Lounge opts for something much more simple.
Our car is fitted with a 70kW/200Nm 1.3-litre turbo diesel engine and a front-drive five-speed manual transmission. No 500X models are offered with a diesel in Australia, although you can specify a six-speed manual in the most-basic Pop variant when paired with the 103kW/230Nm 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine.
Even that though, is a guzzler compared to the Euro6 compliant diesel. The little petrol engine suggested a 6L/100km combined cycle against just 4.1L/100km from the oiler.
The consumption is achievable too, we saw a combined cycle on a 100km loop of just 4.2L/100km. But there is a catch.
For the little diesel to work within its economical limits, you have to be economical with your driving. That means a peak speed of 80km/h and a quick row through the gears to settle the car below 2000rpm as quickly as possible.
It’s very sedate and grandmotherly driving, but once you get into the zone and just go with it, it all becomes quite relaxing , as, lets face it – 70kW is not very much. At all.
Here’s some fun context. The Russian Lada Niva SUV was developed in the 1970’s and used a Fiat-sourced 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine. It had 54kW on tap. Forty years on, and the 500X has just 30 percent more power. Than a Niva. Yep.
But like the go-anywhere Lada, the absence of oomph in the 500X is countered by an intangible ‘fun factor’ no doubt made more noticeable with the five-speed three-pedal transmission.
The Multjet diesel offers peak torque from just 1500rpm, which makes all of that modest power available pretty much all the time. Twist the drive selection dial to sport mode and rev it out to 4000rpm (peak power is at 3750rpm) and you seem to throw the low numbers out the window.
You throw the fuel economy ones out too, but hey – who cares?
Running through some twisting French back roads, the little Fiat feels beautifully balanced and confident on the ever changing surface. Turn-in is direct and aside from a giant A-pillar blind spot (amplified by me not being used to driving from the left), the car is a real delight to punt around.
Shifting gears using the billiard-ball like knob is a true pleasure. The throw is short, smooth and accurate; even the pedal placement allows the occasional down-shift blip from my size 12s.
If not for the occasional oncoming Renault, you begin to feel you could handle one of those gloriously dangerous tarmac rally stages in the Fiat. All that was missing is a light-pod and some exhaust crackle (and about 200kW!)
The fact that the twin-hamster engine meant the car was physically unable to break the 80km/h speed limit wasn’t even an issue, as the road wouldn’t let us get above 60. This is the epitome of the enjoyment gleaned from driving a slow car fast.
Get onto the open road and it will eventually build up a decent head of steam. Don’t rush it though, Fiat claims a 0-100km/h sprint of 12.9-seconds, but once there it will cruise happily at 140km/h on the freeway. This is not the car for fast overtaking moves though, so just plan ahead. See a big truck you need to pass? Check the rear-view mirror is clear from fast approaching Germans and get a good run up.
From a practicality standpoint too, the 500X handles its ‘crossover’ role as a hatchback-cum-SUV. Room in the rear isn’t cavernous but it is acceptable, although the bench could do with some more padding.
The lack of rear vents and windows that don’t go down all the way is a bit frustrating, but the climate control system is able to cool the car reasonably quickly and there are door-bins, map-pockets and an easy to reach USB point to help keep rear passengers comfortable.
The Fiat is quiet on the road, and in the Lounge trim offers a pretty decent stereo system to party any excess noise away.
Plus the FCA trademark ‘hidden behind the steering wheel’ buttons for track selection and volume are always handy.
Setting and using cruise control is easy but we did find the lane-departure steering assistant function on our test car to be a tad intrusive at times. The configuration of the automatic windscreen wiper speed was a bit fiddly too.
Despite these niggles and the Tyrion Lannister-sized power output, it’s still a fun little car to drive and as we’ve noted, a solid interpretation of the original Fiat 500 design.
So what about that other big gripe we have in Australia then. Price.
Well, here's the other interesting thing. In France, where we drove our 500X, the 1.3-litre diesel Lounge manual retails for €23,890. A quick FX translation has that at about AUD$36,000. For some Euro clarity too, that’s about €1000 less than a mid-spec Mazda CX-3 diesel manual (€24,850).
And I’ll save you the trip to the comment pane, the prices for the 500X are similar in the UK (£20,315 or A$39,900 – well, today at least...) and even the Fiat’s home turf, Italy (€24,350 or A$36,500).
The Australian-spec Lounge, with its nine-speed gearbox and 125kW petrol engine – plus the AWD drivetrain – starts from $37,000.
Now it doesn’t matter which side you butter your croissant for it to be obvious that the Australian 500X is clearly BETTER value than the European one. In fact our cars on a whole, providing you stay the lighter side of $100-grand, tend to be much better value than their European counterparts.
So is the grass greener in any way? I’d hazard to say not.
Sure a five-speed transmission in the well-appointed Lounge is a fun touch, and a huge improvement over the finickety nine-speed auto we have in Oz. Even the 70kW diesel is enough for around town running, providing you keep to the left-most lanes.
The thing is, we wouldn’t (and don’t) really miss either of these.
What would not only mean greener grass, but a delectable manicured lawn, is the hotly-anticipated Abarth version of the 500X. Expected to run a 150kW-ish version of the 1.4-litre turbo petrol motor found in the 2016 Abarth Spider, if this thing is made available with a manual transmission and the requisite pops and farts that any performance Fiat should have – then we should absolutely covet thy neighbour’s crossover.
But until that time arrives, feel content in knowing that despite fields of grapes, olives and lavender criss-crossing the European countryside, our grass continues to be amongst the greenest in the world.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by James Ward.