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  • Writer's pictureAndy Pilgrim

1,000 Racer-Driven Miles for Our Four Seasons 2016 Fiat 500X Trekking

Resident pro Andy Pilgrim heads out for a quick road trip

My latest driving escapade for AUTOMOBILE began with a phone call to executive editor Mac Morrison. "Hey, I have meetings in L.A. and San Francisco this week with a run to Buttonwillow Raceway in the middle. Wondering if you might have a press car in need of some miles." A long pause followed. I was pretty sure the call had dropped when I finally heard a chuckle. "Well, yes, but don't think we're giving you a six-figure sports car, Pilgrim. You've had enough of that," he said. "I want you to drive our long-term Fiat 500X Trekking AWD. What does a professional racer think about a compact crossover with an as-tested price of $27,720?"

"I'll take it!"

The Fiat was easy to spot when I arrived at AUTOMOBILE HQ to pick it up. Morrison hadn't told me much about this particular car ahead of time, other than to say, "It's, errr, orange." He probably cracked himself up thinking I'd not want to be spotted in a rolling hunter's vest, but I have no problem with orange. In fact, anything that stands out is a good thing, especially during this epoch of the highly distracted driver.

I like the 500X's design. It has what I call the bloated retro look, probably because I watch too many cartoons. I can still see the baby Fiat in the design, and I like it. It has four doors and room for five passengers. Rear legroom and headroom is ample for a 6-foot-tall adult.

The first chapter of my trip was comprised of a 140-mile drive north from my Los Angeles hotel to Buttonwillow. Little did I know these would be the only dry roads I would see for the next 900 miles. Had I known about precisely the type of weather on a collision course for California, I might have cued up the "Jaws" theme.

My first driving impressions of the 500X were all-around favorable. I easily found a comfortable driving position. This car has the electronically adjustable driver seat option. The Fiat's steering has a nice weight to it, not too heavy and well-isolated from jarring potholes and expansion joints.

I was at Buttonwillow to test a brand-new Mercedes-AMG GT3 race car for Tim Pappas and the Black Swan Racing team. By the time the driveline and gearbox were carefully broken in, the rain had arrived. "OK, Andy, time for you to get some work done. (Owner) Tim will be standing right here, it's pouring with rain, this thing cost $500,000, and we have zero spares with us. Are you excited yet?"

Even though it was wet all day, the Buttonwillow test went quite well. The Mercedes GT3's handling reminded me quite a bit of the Cadillac ATS-V.R GT3 race car I drove in 2015. This makes sense, as they are both homologated front-engine GT3-spec machines with a 50/50 front/rear weight bias.

I also ran the 500X around the track a bit. Morrison gave me explicit instructions to not annihilate the brakes with a bunch of on-the-limit laps, as if I would ever do such a thing. Braking performance is linear to pedal pressure, a good thing. I messed around doing some emergency stops and evasive maneuvers under heavy braking with no drama. The stability-control nannies kept things together nicely. As for the chassis: On the track, the Fiat's handling was predictable and the steering precise, even at the limit.

There were plenty of real-world miles to analyze engine performance. When I looked at the numbers before driving the Fiat, I thought 180 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 174 lb-ft at 3,900 rpm might not be much for a 3,300-pound vehicle. However, I found acceleration from the 2.4-liter four-cylinder acceptable. In fact, the car is surprisingly rapid off the line to 30 mph, thanks to the AWD. Now, above 30 mph all bets are off. Fiat's official 0-to-60-mph time is a shade less than 10 seconds, but it felt quicker. The official fuel economy numbers are 21/30 mpg and 24 mpg combined. Driving like a normal person, I got 23/29 mpg city/highway. The 12.7-gallon tank gives plenty of range.

I left Buttonwillow around 6 p.m. and started my 230-mile run north to Fremont, California. It rained steadily for the entire drive. I was happy to see my hotel around 10 p.m. after stopping for dinner along the way. I'd had more than five hours in the driver's seat and was comfortable the entire way. I didn't even think about doing the butt-cheek shuffle.

The Fiat's sound system worked fine, nothing fancy; it's easy to use, in other words. I plugged in my iPod for music with no fuss. I use the GPS in my phone these days and have become quite adept at using it without looking at it. I did have a bit of an issue with the car's heater. I adjusted for vent and floor, but it stubbornly blew hot air out to the floor and cool air to the vent.

After my Friday meetings were over, I started the 360-mile drive back to L.A. It was still raining, with 40-mph winds added for good measure. Lovely. As many will know, Interstate 5 is plank flat through the San Joaquin Valley. The Fiat showed good stability in the gusty conditions. As altitude increased into the mountains north of L.A., the rain followed suit. Traffic was light enough for me to comfortably maintain the speed limit despite the deluge. The original equipment Nexen Classe Premiere 215/60R-17 tires impressed me mightily. Nexen? Yup, I had to look it up too. Korean tire company, been around since 1942. The conditions certainly got my attention: heavy rain, spray from traffic, curvy freeway, standing water, streams running across, and more. The tires inspired confidence and provided consistent grip and feedback and a better-than-average ability to disperse deeper water.

After grabbing some dinner at my LAX airport hotel, I returned my ride back to the AUTOMOBILE test-fleet garage. I wasn't surprised to find all the other test cars gone for the weekend, but I couldn't help but think someone was missing out. The Fiat 500X Trekking AWD is practical, capable, and a good value with a fun look that certainly appeals to me.

As my taxi splashed its way back to my hotel the radio informed me California was enduring its worst storm in decades. A little smile crossed my face. That was quite a trip, Mr. Fiat, and I think we did OK. As far as I'm concerned, we can team up again anytime.

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