Why did the Freemont cross the road? To drop the MPV tag for one that better resonates with buyers: SUV
How do you boost market share for a niche vehicle like a seven-seat people-mover? For the Fiat Freemont Crossroad, the solution is to label it an SUV and pitch it at outdoor types who'll appreciate the space even if they don't fill all the seats.
To be fair to the Crossroad, it rides as high as many front-wheel drive SUVs and looks more purposeful than a lot of them, too. Just as telling, though, is the fact the MPV (multipurpose vehicle) label doesn't resonate in the imagination of potential buyers with the same intensity as the SUV tag.
Cheap is a relative term but at $36,500 the Fiat Freemont Crossroad is the most affordable full-size MPV on the market. Yes, the Kia Rondo starts at $29,990 but it's physically not as commodious (which is why there's a Kia Grand Carnival).
The Fiat's specification list is impressive for the money, from the 8.4-inch infotainment screen with satnav to thumpingly good Alpine audio that sounds crisp in every seat, cruise control and reversing camera. Obvious competitors include the Grand Carnival and Honda Odyssey, both starting at $38,990.
This car is not so much Italian-American as American-Italian. It's essentially a rebranded Dodge Journey, with the Chrysler-developed Pentastar V6 hooked up to a six-speed auto.
All-wheel drive versions are sold in the US but ours drive only the front wheels.
The only stowage space the Freemont Crossroad lacks is somewhere to lock tantrum-throwing children. From cupholders for every seat and air vents for every row to smart underfloor bins for stashing iPads, the big Fiat has a practical approach that will be appreciated by harried parents. The plastics are soft-touch upfront and more durable down the back as a concession to the spillages likely to occur.
ANCAP doesn't rate the Freemont and I don't mean that in a bad way. The crash-testing authority gives the diesel-powered version a four-star rating but also highlights the result doesn't apply to petrol vehicles.
Six airbags cover the first two rows of seating, leaving those in the back exposed in the event of a T-bone crash. That's not unusual for this type of car. Electronic rollover mitigation and trailer sway control are included in the usual suite of ABS-based software aids.
A high-revving six-cylinder engine overcomes the lack of power found in the four-cylinder petrol models. The Crossroad will now chirp the front wheels off the line.
The brakes are - thankfully - up to the job of reining in that much mass, given that drivers don't have to be too enthusiastic heading into a corner to start going straight ahead rather than take the turn. Generally, though, front-end grip is reassuring even if the lightweight steering doesn't give enough feedback, especially just off-centre.
It doesn't drive with the same finesse as many modern SUVs. Height and weight are the obvious reasons for the extra body roll but the suspension has also been tuned to favour in-car comfort over on-road composure. That's a bonus for those down back, even if it means there's some secondary jiggling over speed bumps as the springs settle back down. It's acceptable for this type of vehicle without coming close to the dynamics of an Odyssey.
The Crossroad has far more visual impact though. It's a well-proportioned big bus and the chrome-look "nudge bar" styling of the front spoiler dispenses with any impression of slabbiness. Fiat says there are 32 possible seat combinations. I believe it. The second row splits 60-40 and either division can be adjusted for legroom and recline via levers on the outside seats.
Integrated booster cushions for smaller children are a brilliant idea that Fiat says allows "the transport of children weighing 15 to 36kg, without using a child restraint system". The third row seats, the domain of smaller children or vertically challenged adults, are comfortable enough for trips of a decent duration.