I drove a rented 2018 Fiat 500 this summer in the Italian Alps and thought, "What a dog." Then I drove a new 2019 Fiat 500X in the Malibu mountains and thought, "What a blast!"
The difference between the two cars was under the hood. The 500 I drove in Malibu was powered by Fiat's all-new 1.3-liter turbocharged engine. It's a game changer.
Fiat's parent company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, is on a hot streak. The car company in July reported strong vehicle sales and a jump in profits for the second quarter of 2019. But the improved numbers were driven principally by sales of FCA's Ram trucks and new Jeep Gladiator, with the Fiat division taking up the rear.
So it's a good time for a Fiat 500 refresh.
The new engine replaces a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine that many critics found sluggish and underwhelming. The new power plant offers a 35% improvement in torque, from 172 pound-feet with the previous engine to 210 pound-feet with the new one. That's a best-in-segment number, Fiat boasts.
Fuel economy is also up a tick, and carbon dioxide emissions are down.
The new engine also shaved 80 pounds off the weight of the car and allowed designers to replace the old front-wheel-drive transmission with an all-wheel-drive system.
The result is a much sportier driving experience, palpable on city streets and highways and considerably more so in the narrow, twisty Malibu canyons. Gone is that weird torque steering that comes with front-wheel-drive systems -- replaced by a more traditional wheel feel as power pushes the car through turns rather than dragging it forward.
The MacPherson suspension system manages the power well. While not quite as go-cart speedy as Fiat's 124 Spider, or the very sporty Abarth version of the 500, the X outfitted this way was a capable curve carver at moderate speeds.
The new engine, already in use in FCA's Jeep Renegade, comes standard in the three trims offered in the X line: Pop, Trekking and Trekking Plus. (Fiat executives coyly declined to say when or whether the new engine would migrate to the 500 or 500L.)