For years, Arby’s has been telling us that ‘different is good’. But as delicious as those roast beef sandwiches are, that slogan doesn’t necessarily translate when it comes to cars.
|1. A 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder engine makes 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque.
2. A six-speed manual is standard, a six-speed dual-clutch is optional.
3. Fuel consumption is rated at 24 mpg city and 33 mpg highway.
4. The Fiat 500L starts at $19,900 and our 500L Lounge tester costs $26,495.
Crystal Pepsi, Ford Edsels and the XFL are all examples of “different” products that quickly disprove the fast food giant’s adage. And now, another vehicle is dangerously close to entering “too-different-for-consumers-to-accept” territory. Meet the Fiat 500L.
One of the most controversial exterior designs since the Nissan Juke or Pontiac Aztek, the 500L looks a bit like a regular 500 doing its best blowfish impression. Fully puffed out, the 500L is 27 inches longer, six inches wider and six inches taller than its smaller sibling. Despite this extra length and the fact the 500L is now classified by the EPA as a large car, the 500L is still only 167.1 inches long. That’s shorter than a Ford Fiesta sedan. All of the usual Fiat 500 styling cues are present on the exterior of the larger “L” and while some of them work, others look awkward because of the stretched proportions.
BIG HATCH, LITTLE HEADROOM
With 23.1 cubic feet behind the back seats, the cargo hold can swallow up a lot of gear and can even separate it thanks to an adjustable shelf. As well, the back seats fold flat and flip forward, allowing for even greater flexibility in the cargo hold.
Sadly, back seat headroom is incredibly tight and not just for taller passengers. Even those of medium height will have issues with headroom because of the full-length sunroof and how high the seat is. The high mounted, upright seat does make the 30.7 inches of rear legroom feel more spacious, but unless the seat is moved forward on its rails so it can recline backwards “gangsta style,” few adults will be comfortable.
Up front, the 500L differs from the smaller 500 by including Chrysler’s terrific Uconnect infotainment system and touchscreen interface. The multi-functional steering wheel utilizes the usual Chrysler buttons front and back as well as a funky, squarish design. Although this wheel finally has telescopic adjustability (missing in others of the 500 family), the main gauges are obstructed from view unless the wheel is in an uncomfortably high position. To further the funkiness inside, many items are offset, like the sun visors, which angle toward the front windshield instead of being perpendicular to it.
THOSE CRAZY A-PILLARS
The view out of the front windshield takes some getting used to as well, thanks to a set of demi-windows between the A-pillars and windshield that wrap into the driver’s peripheral vision. But the overall sightlines in the 500L are terrific thanks to the boxy shape and abundant windows.
Even the fully loaded 500L “Lounge” model is missing certain convenience features. Automatic lights, an intermittent setting for the rear wiper, front intermittent wipers and more than one setting for both the heated seats are all absent. As well, the front cup holders are too low to the ground leaving them difficult to reach for passengers and the driver alike.
SMALL ENGINE, BIG POWER
Powering the 500L is the same 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder engine as found in the Dodge Dart Rallye and Fiat 500 Abarth. In this vehicle it makes 160 hp and a robust 184 lb-ft of torque. It can be paired to either a six-speed manual transmission or the six-speed dual-clutch automatic found in our test vehicle.
This semi-automatic transmission produces smooth gear changes, but is slow to engage when rolling away from a stop. Add lag from the highly boosted little four-pot and a significant pause is felt from the moment the throttle is depressed to when the vehicle begins to move with any haste. Once the turbo begins to spool, it does so quickly and that momentary hesitation is replaced by full throttle acceleration. This non-linear power band is only worsened by somewhat grabby brakes that make the 500L difficult to drive smoothly.
Part of the reason for the engines slow response may have to do with fuel savings. Officially rated at 24 mpg city and 33 mpg highway, our 3,254-lb test vehicle was able to return an overall average of 26.1 mpg. Whether Fiat intended it or not, the turbo lag leaves a chance to shift before gas-gulping boost comes on. Given a little more time in the car, it’s easy to see that average figure improving.
Handling of the 500L can best be described as predictable. With the upgraded 225/45R17 tires, the 500L would gladly do what was asked of it, though for some reason it felt heavier than it really was. The 500L has a tippy feeling similar to the 500 Abarth, but without the twitchy tail-happy handling traits. Unlike most of the other 500 variants, there is no sport button on, which is a shame because I have always liked the way Fiat stiffened up steering in this setting.
Since the Kia Rondo and Chevrolet Orlando are missing in the U.S., the 500L’s only real competitor is the equally lackluster Scion xB and maybe, on a stretch, the Mazda5 or Buick Encore. Starting at $21,495, the 500L Lounge also begins to creep into compact crossover price territory, especially our loaded up tester which came in at $26,495. But nothing from any segment, can really match the 500L’s unique looks and personality. If these traits top your priority list, this Fiat is tough beat. Otherwise, the 500L is more of a funky design study than a useful family vehicle.