Fiat goes long with 500L (get it?) to connect with more buyers
Credit Fiat for quickly deducing that its cute, but diminutive, 500 runabout simply won’t do for many U.S. families. The Italian automaker that owns Chrysler needed something that would cast a wider net when trying to land more customers on our shores.
Voila! The 500L!
This is a small crossover or wagon much along the lines of MINI’s Clubman. That’s to say it’s boxy and big enough to hold four adults and some groceries under the hatch. It remains cute, like the MINI is cute, but no one will mistake it for the much smaller Fiat 500 that its name implies it descends from.
But this is a different beast in that at 167.1 inches the 500L is nearly two feet longer, plus a little wider and taller, than the tiny 500. The 500L rides on a much larger 102.8-inch wheelbase, a little shorter than a Subaru Forester, for example, and nearly a foot longer than Fiat’s 500. The L is no featherweight either, at 3,203 lbs. it’s about 900 lbs. heavier than its smaller sibling.
I parked the 500L next to a standard MINI in a fast food parking lot and was amazed at how much larger the Fiat looked.
What all this size means is that the 500L rides well, but remains a good handler, like its smaller model, the 500. The suspension does a surprisingly good job of soaking up our roads’ numerous imperfections. Some larger crossovers and small utes don’t feel this well controlled. As with the 500 model, this one’s ride quality surprises.
It also feels fairly nimble. You’ll not confuse this with a sports car, or even a sporty car, but the 500L’s steering is relatively responsive, albeit with a heavier feel than in the 500. That’s OK because the car feels more substantial and you don’t expect it to be as flickable as the go-kart nimble 500.
Acceleration is good, but not as peppy as I had expected.
The 500L’s extra weight slows it down off the line as the 1.4-liter I4 Multi-Air turbocharged engine has to work a bit harder to get the L moving. Fiat says the engine creates 160 horses with a 184 torque rating. That’s sufficient to be sure, and when driving solo the L feels a tad frisky. Load the front-drive car up with 2-3 passengers and the pep is reduced. It’s simply a power-to-weight issue.
Power tends to lag in third gear, where many a car seem to bog a bit. But the 6-speed twin-clutch automatic shifts particularly smoothly, even when you’re thrashing the gas pedal some. The one downside is an occasional lag as the car downshifts as you get off the gas into a turn and then hustle back onto the accelerator. Several times it seemed the turbo or the tranny wanted to coast for an extra second or two before re-engaging to boost acceleration.
Braking always seemed fine and stability control is standard. The white test car with black roof ($500 extra) also added 17-inch painted aluminum wheels for $500, while 16-inch wheels and tires are standard.
I was a bit surprised that the 500L, which is assembled in Serbia, had just two-wheel drive. Most crossovers offer four- or all-wheel-drive at this price point. The tested Lounge version lists at $24,195, plus an $800 delivery fee. Some base small utes would offer AWD at that price.
The Lounge model is the top-end 500L though. With a few options the test vehicle hit $27,445, a price that opens up several AWD options from competitors. But you don’t need to push the $30 grand envelop for a 500L, a base Pop model starts at $19,995. All the models feature the same base turbo engine, but note that the Pop comes with a manual transmission.
While I like the interior space in the 500L, I had more issues with the Fiat’s cockpit than with its performance.
The test car’s interior was black and gray with mottled gray leather seating that looked cheap, like it was trying too hard to be classy, but wasn’t. Yet the dash is well laid out and easy to figure out. I liked the white-faced gauges and the orange digital trip computer readout amidst the main gauges.
However, the speedometer and tachometer were on either side of the main gauge cluster, instead of in the middle, as in many vehicles. The problem is that their placement made them impossible to see because the thick leather-wrapped steering wheel perfectly blocked much of their faces. I tried moving the seat up and down and the steering wheel, but there were not many good spots to see the entire speedometer, unless the wheel was tilted up all the way. But that was uncomfortable and I felt like I was behind a school bus steering wheel.
Seats though were easy to adjust up and down with a handle on the side and the rest of the controls were manual. Fiat’s seats are fairly straight up and down and rather firm. They were fine for around town driving. A friend said her daughter actually was feeling some leg cramping while driving her new 500L. Let’s hope that’s a rare problem.
Headroom is certainly no problem. It’s generous front and rear, as is legroom. If you carry four adults though, you will only have room for a couple bags behind the rear seat, under the hatch. Those rear seats will split and fold forward dramatically increasing cargo room, but the rear seat backs do not fold completely flat.
The test car added a $950 panoramic sunroof, which really lightened up the car’s interior. I liked the size, but wished for solid sun shields to cover the huge sunroof. It got pretty warm inside, even on cool sunny days. The inner shade is only that, a thick net-like shade that allows a lot of sun to penetrate into the cockpit.
Fiat dropped an upgraded Beats speaker system and a subwoofer into the test car to improve stereo sound quality. That added another $500.
Something you might get used to, but that felt odd to me, is the windshield layout. It’s oddly framed so you see the A-pillars more than in most cars. While I like that there are small vent-like windows to allow better side visibility, this layout felt awkward. Likewise, I felt the doors gave off a tinny sound when I shut them, something I haven’t heard in a vehicle in some time.
But when it came to economic running, I could not complain. I managed 30.1 mpg in about 70% highway driving while the EPA rates the L at 24 mpg city and 33 mpg highway.
Overall the 500L drives well and delivers a certain amount of economy, if you avoid the higher priced trim levels. But be sure to check my concern areas, especially the speedometer visibility.
FAST Stats: 2014 Fiat 500L Lounge
Hits: Good handling and ride, plus roomy for 4 adults, or 2 and a load of luggage. Has a giant panoramic sunroof.
Misses: Driver can’t see speedometer due to wheel blocking view, odd front window framing, leather on interior looks cheap, rear seat backs don’t fold flat, doors sound tinny when being shut. Pricy for not having AWD.
Made in: Kragujevac, Serbia
Engine: 1.4-liter I4 Multi-Air, turbo, 160 hp
Transmission: 6-speed Euro twin-clutch automatic
Weight: 3,203 lbs.
Wheelbase: 102.8 in.
Length: 167.1 in.
Cargo: 23.1 cu.ft.
MPG: 24/33 (EPA)
MPG: 30.1 (tested)
Base Price: $24,195
Dealer’s Price: $24,303 (includes delivery)
Power sunroof, $950
Black roof, $500
6 Beats audio speakers & subwoofer, $500
17-inch painted alum. wheels, $500
Test vehicle: $27,445
Sources: Fiat, http://www.kbb.com