For better or worse the Fiat 500L has an eye-catching design. As small people-haulers go this one’s definitely got a quirky European vibe to it, which is convenient because it’s an eccentric MPV from the old world. You can think of it as sort of an Italian version of the MINI Countryman. But does it offer the right blend of attributes to compete with its Anglo rival? Is it a suitable car for young, style-conscious buyers?
Engine: A 1.4L turbo four-cylinder delivers 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque.
Transmission: A six-speed manual is standard and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic is optional.
Fuel Economy: The dual-clutch stickers at 24 MPG in the city and 33 on the highway; combined it ought to return 24 MPG.
Pricing: The 2014 Fiat 500L starts at $19,995 but the higher-end Trekking model we evaluated carried an out-the-door price of $25,445.
MILES OF STYLE, KILOMETERS OF DESIGN
Without question, the first thing you’ll notice about the 500L is its exterior design; this crossover-ish vehicle is kind of weird looking. It’s supposedly a larger, more comfortable version of Fiat’s iconic Cinquecento and it definitely shares a few styling traits with its stable-mate, things like rounded headlamps and a small, mustache-like grille. But that’s where the similarities end.
Based on the EPA Interior Volume Index, the 500L offers more than 121 cubic feet of space, which actually puts it in the large car class. How about that? Additionally when compared to Fiat’s standard Cinquecento the L is roughly 27 inches longer as well as 6 inches wider and taller. It also offers surprisingly spacious seating for five.
The interior layout fits with its exterior styling meaning it’s a bit peculiar, though it’s not quite as over-the-top. The dashboard has a sort of puffy appearance to it with the infotainment system and climate controls easily accessible on the center stack. Dual glove boxes separated by an exposed storage shelf assure there’s plenty of storage space. The materials quality is quite good, with some interestingly textured surfaces.
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As for the front seats, they’re not terribly plush; there’s a strange lump in the lower cushion that presses into the bottom of your thighs, and then there are the materials. Some of the fabric feels a bit like a fish net but other parts of the seats are covered in vinyl. From a comfort standpoint the front buckets feel like flying coach on a value airline.
However, standing (or sitting?) in stark contrast is the 500L’s rear bench. It’s quite spacious with an unexpectedly elevated cushion height; something that gives passengers a nice view. Additionally, legroom isn’t too shabby and neither is noggin space, front or rear.
Regrettably, forward visibility from the driver’s seat is kind of a weak point. The view is reminiscent of those old GM “Dustbuster” vans from the late 1980s and early ‘90s, with extra panes of glass flanking the windshield. The dashboard is also especially long. And just in case two A-pillars weren’t enough to block your vision, there are supplemental posts on each side.
Also, it feels like the driver’s seat is positioned far back from the front wheels, like it’s nearly in the cargo hold, something that makes the driving position even more awkward. Speaking of storage, the 500L’s luggage space is quite generous and tall. There’s about 22 cubic feet available behind the second row seat and nearly 70 if you fold it down.
To serve a more diverse customer base this vehicle is offered in four different trim levels. Pop is the base model followed by Easy, Trekking and then Lounge at the top. Base price for a Pop is $19,995 including destination fees. The up-level Trekking model provided for evaluation checked out at a not-unreasonable $25,445, a price that included a handful of options.
Under its pug-like snout, the 500L features a tiny 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Fortunately it’s augmented by a turbocharger and a bunch of other advanced technologies. With peak boost hitting 21 PSI, it cranks out 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. Fiat’s innovative MultiAir system, which controls airflow into the engine by adjusting intake-valve lift, ensures responsive performance and better fuel economy.
Speaking of gasoline, it’s a-ok to run 87-octane regular-grade fuel but the company recommends feeding it at least 91 for optimum performance and efficiency.
Two transmissions are offered and both have six speeds; there’s a proper manual or a dual-clutch automatic. Our test car was equipped with the latter, something that helped it deliver some attractive numbers on the window sticker, though curiously, the stick version is supposed to be slightly thriftier. Around town it was expected to deliver 24 miles to a gallon of gasoline; on the highway that figure grows to 33. Its combined fuel-economy score is 27 MPG, which is pretty nice.
Beyond all of these facts and figures, the vehicle also featured attractive 17-inch wheels, a navigation system, a rearview camera, a premium Beats sound system and more. The Trekking trim also provides more aggressively styled front and rear fascias as well as some graphite-colored accents.
As for crashworthiness, the 500L earned a Top Safety Pick rating from the folks at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. This means it ought provide ample protection for passengers should the unthinkable happen.
DRIVE ME WILD… OR CRAZY
Putting it all in motion the 500L is an off-putting blend of highs and lows. Allow me to explain.
Its engine pulls quite well. The turbo-four is decently smooth and gets the job done with little fuss. It’s quite enjoyable with ample mid-range torque on tap. The dual-clutch automatic transmission isn’t bad, but it’s a little slow to up-shift. If you were hoping for performance parity with Volkswagen’s stellar DSG you’re going to have to look elsewhere.
Also, since it features a dry-clutch arrangement the transmission does have an unusual slipping sensation when taking off from a stop. Minor gripes aside, during my time with the vehicle it never exhibited any egregious drivetrain faults.
But the 500L’s solid powertrain performance is completely let down by its chassis. The body rolls quite a bit through corners making the vehicle seem unusually tippy.
The steering is light to the touch and the ratio is a bit too quick; this combination makes the 500L feel jittery and anxious. Also, the shape of the wheel is quite odd, with two fat spokes at the three and nine o’clock positions, each of which has strangely squared-off edges. It’s actually hard to place your hands on the tiller, which is the most important requirement of a steering wheel.
Additionally, the 500L’s ride isn’t harsh per se. Big impacts and bumps are digested just fine, but smaller imperfections come right through. Expansion joints, gravel surfaces and small potholes are broadcast directly to the cabin in high-definition.
Furthering the feeling of nervousness, this vehicle’s brake pedal is light and sudden to grab on. It’s easy to apply way too much braking power to the point where passenger comfort is often compromised.
From an overall driving perspective, this vehicle is nearly a complete disappointment; MINI’s Countryman has absolutely nothing to worry about.
And if that last line sounds pretty ominous it’s because it is. Wrapping it all up with a neat little bow, the Fiat 500L is an unusual mix of plusses and minuses – if cars could be bipolar this one could be the poster-child.
It’s fuel efficient and attractively priced; its engine performs well and it’s got lots of interior space. However, the ride and handling leave much to be desired, as does forward visibility from the driver’s seat. If you like its design and want a small, roomy vehicle check one out. But if you just need a new ride you can do a lot better than this, and frankly so can Fiat.