When the White House Auto Task Force gift-wrapped Chrysler to Italy's Fiat six years ago, hardly anyone seemed to notice that a full-line American automaker was being taken over by an econobox-builder whose products could fit in the bed of a RAM pickup.
They called it Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. It's like Mini Cooper took over General Motors and called it Mini Motors.
In addition to gaining iconic brands like RAM and Jeep, Fiat's brilliant, sweater-model-and-CEO Sergio Marchionne saw the chance to reintroduce his Italian brand to American tastes for the first time in a quarter century. Two years later, Chef Sergio's Fiat cafes were popping up all over the country featuring ... one menu item.
An appetizer. A tiny Italian meatball. The Fiat 500. Tasty. Bite-sized.
The elites inside Washington's Beltway drooled at the menu, predicting the little meatball was just the kind of fuel-efficient, low-calorie diet obese Americans craved to cure them of their sport ute ways. (These same Washington elites also think pro soccer is going to take America by storm.)
But a cafe cannot survive on meatballs alone. Neither can a car company. The adorable 500 was a blast to drive and a bomb at the cash register. It fit Europe where a gallon of gas costs the gross national product of Greece and roads are as narrow as linguine. But in wide open, $3-a-gallon-gas America? Fiat was the mouse that bored. Cute as a tricycle and just as prone to being Chevy Suburban road kill. Meatball 500 sales were half of predictions.
"We thought we were going to show up and just because of the fact people like gelato and pasta, people will buy it," Chef Sergio told Bloomberg Business. "This is nonsense." So he went about building a bigger menu.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in the U.S. ... build utes.
For all of Washington's day dreams about small cars saving the planet, Sergio watched as the Jeep Grand Cherokee saved Chrysler. Not just Chrysler, but Fiat as well as Europe's economy tanked and North America became FCA's profit engine. The Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango and RAM pickup sold like hotcakes. Sergio embraced SUVs like black sweaters.
He built compact Cherokees. And subcompact Renegades. And Maserati SUVs. And then ... get used to the oxymoron "Fiat SUV."
It had been done before. Mini launched in the U.S. on the back of an iconic compact cutie, which then birthed a four-door and a crossover Countryman. So Fiat made a bigger meatball — the 500L — with the same chassis ingredients as the 500. Now comes a completely fresh, subcompact ute out of the merged kitchen of Fiat and Chrysler.
Detroit News auto critic says the bigger Fiat is ready for American roads. Henry Payne
Hello, 2016 Fiat 500X. Meatball entree with all the fixings. A Fiat fit for the USA.
The adorable family features are all there. Big headlights so cute they should have eyelashes. Soft, baby-faced chin. Round Fiat logo smack in the middle like a child's binky. 'Round back a round behind that leans forward like a toddler eyeing a box of chocolates.
But in between the 500X is a grownup's SUV. The interior dash bears Fiat's signature plastic dash colored to match the exterior (oooh, I really like the red), but the ergonomics are Chrysler-esque — crisp and logically placed. No Euro-quirks like the 500L's goofy center armrest. The center console rises from the floor providing cupholders, useful storage space for phones, and surprising elbow room in a segment where front seats can feel as crowded as Delta coach-class. Rear seats are roomy, the cargo hatch configurable, and a nifty, full-cabin moon roof for necking under the stars.
Turn the key and the voice is more grown up as the 2.4-liter Tigershark engine — more Chrysler hardware, thank you very much — barks to life. The X's 184 horses deliver Fiat's promised fun factor along with a much tighter suspension than its raw, off-road Renegade cousin. That's X as in X Games. The AWD is LOL to drive.
The base, "Pop"-trim, 500X gets the spicy, 160-horse, 1.4-liter turbo four found in the raucous Fiat Abarth pocket rocket. But, oddly, Fiat kills the recipe by only offering the turbo in a manual and without the Tigershark's suspension upgrades. It's like cooking up a tasty veal cutlet — then smothering it in anchovies and lard. Sigh.
Base hiccup aside, this mouth-watering recipe is courtesy of a first, global, "Small U.S. Wide" platform jointly developed by Italian and American chefs to accommodate the 500X and Renegade (and future vehicles tailored to markets from Italy to China to Brazil to here). And as pioneers in the subcompact ute segment, the Renegade and 500X stand to make an impression on shoppers looking for some spice in their menu.
Want a burger? Buy a Honda HR-V or Chevy Trax. Want camp-fire barbecue? Try Renegade. Pasta? The 500X is your fashion plate.
Fiat will have to prove its quality, of course. But style, too, matters in metro markets where Fiat expects the 500X will be a hit. Fiat debuted the X in Los Angeles where owners wear their cars as a fashion statement. Thanks to the valley's legendary traffic, Angelinos spend more time in their vehicles — 90 hours a week — than anyplace else. A fellow motor scribe flew into L.A. recently for a 44-mile drive down the 405 to Irvine. It took him four — four! — hours. My co-driver and I drove the 500X from Malibu to Beverly Hills — 25 miles — in 1.5 hours. It felt like a week and a half. We grew beards that would make ZZ Top proud.
All this time in the X means it has to work inside as well as outside. I climbed over the rear seats to the rear. Stretched my legs. Charged my phone in the USB port. Checked my luggage for a razor.
Fiat expects its new menu item to be its best-seller. Its natural competitor is the Mini Countryman crossover cutie. The 500X won't touch the Mini for sportiness, but its taller stance, AWD and healthy cargo room will make it the practical choice for many. Practical in price, too. Fiat has smartly stickered the 500X from $20,900, which is in line with its mainline competitors — and well below the $22,550 premium buyers hand over for a Mini.
Utility. Room. All-wheel-drive. Oxymoron. Fiat. The Italian immigrant is building a tasty Yankee Ristorante.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2016 Fiat 500X
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel drive, five-passenger sport ute
Price: $20,900 base ($30,900 AWD as tested)
Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbocharged inline-4; 2.4-liter inline-4
Power: 160 horsepower, 184 pound-feet of torque (turbo 1.4L); 180 horsepower, 175 pound-feet of torque (2.4L)
Transmission: 6-speed manual (only available with turbo 1.4L); 9-speed automatic transmission (with 2.4L)
Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.7-8.9 seconds (Car & Driver)
Weight: 2,967 pounds (base)
Fuel economy: TBA
Highs: Lots of character; unique, functional interior
Lows: Sprightly turbo only comes in manual with less-refined chassis: The ghost of FCA quality past