Driven: 2014 Fiat 500L

By Brandon Turkus

June 17, 2013

—Baltimore, Maryland
 
It’s not enough nowadays to build a space-efficient small car. Those seem to be a dime a dozen, thanks in large part to the resurgence of three- and five-door hatchbacks and small wagons.
 
No, the real trick now is to build a small, space-efficient car that has character and that people want to drive, all while keeping the price affordable.
 
Mini did a good job of this when it returned to the market in 2002. The BMW-owned, British brand has grown to include a range of body styles, but in the process has kind of lost the plot when it comes to affordability.
 
[Click here to read our review of Fiat 500C]
 
Fiat has seemingly replicated Mini’s initial success using the same formula of character, affordability, and driving excitement in its range of 500 hatchbacks. Now, the Italian brand is looking to branch out with a larger offering.
 
The Fiat 500L attempts to take the fun-to-drive 500 package and add a much-needed dose of utility. In the process, the newest member of the Fiat family has gotten some new looks
 
While it might share part of its name with the 500, the L is very clearly its own vehicle. That’s most obvious from the outside, where it sports an enlarged version of the 500’s design language. Car And Driver’s Alexander Stoklosa says, “the 500’s cutesy, bug-eyed face looks like it’s been pasted onto a mop bucket.”
 
Driven: 2014 Fiat 500L
 
While that was certainly our opinion on first view, the 500L, with its odd hatchback/mini-MPV proportions grew on us during the day. It’s not the best looking vehicle on the road, but Fiat did a better job of translating its small-car design language to a larger vehicle than Mini did when penning the Countryman.
 
The 500L is significantly longer (27 inches) than a 500 hatchback, while the interior volume is up 42 percent. For those who care about space efficiency, that last number is the big deal.  There’s 98.8 cubic feet of passenger volume in the 500L, with 21.3 cubic feet of luggage space. Compare that with the 87 cubic feet of passenger volume and 16.5 cubic feet of cargo volume found on the marginally smaller Countryman (about six inches of overall length separate the two), and the 500’s space efficiency makes it a seriously compelling offering.
 
Interior space is, not surprisingly, the 500L’s strong suit. The interior offers loads of headroom. When Autoweek’s Jake Lingeman said “There is enough headroom for at least a point guard in the NBA, if not a small forward,” that wasn’t really much of an exaggeration.
 
Your six-foot, one-inch author had no shortage of headroom, while there was (thankfully) much more shoulder room than in the 500. In back, real, living humans can fit. Leg and headroom are quite reasonable, although this is still a space that won’t be tolerable for more than an hour or so.
 
The material choices vary rather wildly from the base Pop trim to the top-end Lounge. There are quite a few hard plastics that kind of ruin the experience, but the standard touchscreen radio, slick HVAC controls, and circle-in-a-square steering wheel add to the cabin experience.
 
Driven: 2014 Fiat 500L
 
The drivetrain is perhaps the biggest example of pros and cons on the Fiat 500L. Solidly in the “Pros” column is the 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder under the L’s hood. Yes, this is the same engine from the Fiat 500 Abarth (and the Dodge Dart). No, it doesn’t sound like someone put a lion’s tail in a blender.
 
Fiat wisely chose to subdue the 500L’s exhaust note, with the resulting signature having a lot in common with the 500 Turbo. This is no bad thing, as both cars are blessed with a subtle, throaty note. It’s deep but not obnoxious. You won’t have to worry about droning while cruising or alerting the carabinieri when driving around town.
 
All 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque are tasked with hauling around over 3200 pounds of hatchback. Yeah, the weight matches the pudgy looks. Still, with peak torque available between 2500 and 4000 rpm, there’s usable power here. Get over the initial turbo lag, and the low and mid-range punch are quite good. It’s not a fast car, but it’s certainly not underpowered. We had no issues mustering up enough power for freeway passes or entrance ramps, and could easily squeal the tires away from a stoplight.
 
When the 500L arrives in dealerships, it’ll be with the choice of two transmissions. A six-speed manual and a six-speed Euro Twin Clutch (DCT) will be followed up by a torque-converted, six-speed auto later this year. If you’ve been waiting for the “Cons” column, here it is.
 
We spent most of the day with the DCT, and while its quick upshifts impressed us, the combination of turbo lag and a hesitation to downshift left the 500L feeling flat-footed and dull when power was suddenly called upon. As Mark Elias from Leftlane News found, “the six-speed dual clutch transmission tended to hold the gears longer than we would have liked, instead of dropping a cog or two when called upon.” So yeah, if you can’t handle a clutch pedal, wait for the torque-converted automatic.
 
The six-speed manual felt like a better option. The clutch had a short travel, but a broad, predictable catchpoint and a linear action. The throttle response felt a bit sluggish, but the clutch bit easily. The long throws of the six-speed manual were a mild disappointment, as we’d been hoping for the snickety-snack action we’ve grown accustomed to with Fiats.
 
With the six-speed manual, drivers should expect 25 miles per gallon in the city and 33 mpg on the highway. The Euro Twin Clutch matches the manual’s highway number, but drops to 24 mpg in the city.
 
Fiat went to some lengths to avoid the same choppy, borderline uncomfortable ride found in the regular 500. Koni’s frequency selective dampers are fitted at all four corners, with the resulting ride feeling well mannered and comfortable. Short of flagstone leftover from the American Revolution, the 500L had no issues on the streets of Baltimore.
 
Still, there’s an ungainly quality about the 500L through the bends. It tends to roll quite a bit, lacking the level of composure found in a regular 500. There’s not much vertical motion, and the Koni FSD’s manage most fore and aft body motions well.
 
Driven: 2014 Fiat 500L
 
As Donny Nordlicht from Automobile noted, “The 500L's ride is taut without being harsh or overly stiff, although this is no canyon carver by any means.” And while this is completely true, it doesn’t address the lack of chassis feedback. The 500L simply isn’t the talkative partner that the standard 500 is.
 
In fact, the L’s handling woes are its biggest issue. If you’ve come from a Mini Countryman, even a base model, the Fiat is going to feel wobbly, pitchy, and generally uninspiring. The Mini simply is the better driver’s car, with flatter, more predictable and balanced handling. Still, the crashy Countryman does kind of go to pieces on rough roads. If you encounter big bumps on a regular basis (we’re looking at you, fellow Michiganders), the Fiat makes a fair amount of sense.
 
Fiat fit the 500L with electronic power steering, and while the weighting is reasonable, the inherent lack of feedback with EPS systems is made worse by the lack of chatter from the chassis.
 
The 500L will be available in four trims when it hits dealerships. The base 500L Pop comes standard with the 1.4-liter turbo, a six-speed manual, the Koni FSDs, 16-inch wheel covers, heated side mirrors, a five-inch UConnect touchscreen radio, Bluetooth, USB and auxiliary connectivity, and seven airbags. The Pop starts at $19,100.
 
Building on the basic package is the 500L Easy. The Easy packs 16-inch alloys, tinted rear windows, a driver’s armrest, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and a six-speaker stereo with a 520-watt amp. Easy starts at $20,195.
 
The Fiat 500L Trekking is the L’s equivalent to the 500 Sport. 17-inch wheels and a sportier, rugged looking body are set off by unique interior finishes and premium cloth seats, along with front fog lamps. The 500L Trekking starts at $21,195.
 
Driven: 2014 Fiat 500L
 
At the top of the totem pole is the 500L Lounge, which includes 16-inch wheels, fog lamps, a vinyl-wrapped instrument panel, heated, six-way power seats, driver lumbar adjustments, automatic dual-zone climate control, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. The 500L Lounge starts at $24,195.
 
In a rare move, Fiat is including the $1700 Premium Package free of charge for the 500L’s first model year. That means Easy, Trekking, and Lounge customers will be getting free satellite navigation, the larger, 6.5-inch touchscreen display, rear-park assist, and a standard backup camera. The Premium Package isn’t available on the base 500L Pop.
 
A Beats By Dre stereo and SiriusXM satellite radio can be added to the 500L Easy and Trekking, although pricing isn’t available just yet.
 
By all accounts, the 500L looks well set up to take on the established crop of style-centric small people movers. It doesn’t beat the Mini Countryman by being more engaging or entertaining, but its blend of size, affordability, and standard equipment are more than enough to make it a compelling alternative.
 
2014 Fiat 500L Lounge
Engine: Turbocharged inline-4, 1.4 liters, 16v
Output: 160 hp/184 lb-ft
0-60: 9.3 sec (est)
Weight: 3254 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 24/33 mpg
Base Price: $24,195
On Sale: Now