And then I drove one, and the bloom was off my little Italian rose. Oh, I still appreciated its size and high style, but I found it wholly unsatisfying to drive, something that wouldn't be rectified until the Abarth arrived. It wasn't that the standard 500 was slow – I expected that – it was that its wonky driving position, lackluster transmissions and ropey steering all stood in the way of appreciating its other virtues. The Abarth's characterful powertrain would eventually come along to alleviate most of those pains, but not all of them.
Now with the advent of the 500L for 2014, it appears I'm living the same scenario, albeit in reverse. My first encounter with this new, larger Fiat was also at the Geneva show, only this time, when the sheet was yanked off its flanks in 2012, I didn't like what I saw. The Italian marque hadn't just name-checked the Cinquecento with this larger five-door, it attempted to appropriate its amusing and iconic design by repeating key styling elements like its circular light fixtures and simple chrome bar grille (collectively known as the "whiskers and logo face"), along with rounded interior forms painted in body colors. To my eyes, the design just didn't work, yet I was still intrigued about the promise of a larger 500 and more polished driving experience.
Of course, styling is entirely subjective, and familiarity on my behalf has bred increasing acceptance, especially after having spent a day driving the greater Baltimore area on the vehicle's launch. To be honest, I'm still not a fan of the 500L's appearance, but some color combinations are more flattering than others, and there's a new Trekking specification designed for our market that I think really helps the visuals (seen above in yellow paint). Normally I'm not much for the faux off-roader treatments that manufacturers put on wagons to boost their testosterone quotients and profit margins, but every once in a while, someone gets it right. Fiat has here – the protruding matte black front fascia looks simultaneously more aggressive and better integrated, flowing around to the fender flares and along the running boards. The rear bumper cap gets a similar treatment, and there's a blacked-out full-width panel that spans the rear reflectors and tailgate. A model-specific two-tone interior package looks aces as well.
There's a new Trekking specification designed for our market that really helps the visuals.
Taken as a whole, the Trekking appears slightly more purposeful on 17-inch wheels, even if ground clearance remains unchanged. Interestingly, this softroader design has made a such a positive first impression that Fiat expects for it to become the 500L's volume trim in North America, and Europeans liked it so much that clamoring dealers have secured it for sale on The Continent as well. Unfortunately, no Trekkings (Trekkies?) were available to test, so the jackknife key to this loaded Lounge model with optional dual-clutch transmission was claimed instead.
Inside, the 500L gives up much of the whimsy of its smaller relation, but it pays it all back in a hugely airy feeling. Despite a tidy 167.3-inch overall length (27.7 inches longer than the 500), this Fiat feels positively massive inside thanks to an abundance of tall windows and the availability of a twin-element panoramic moonroof, the latter of which makes the whole thing feel like you're camped out in a greenhouse. Because of the extra pillar, there's an unusual cab-forward thing happening, where the base of the windshield stretches out somewhere ahead of you. It's a bit like the Volkswagen New Beetle, but it isn't off-putting like that environment was, in part because the 500L doesn't have that car's cartoon-bubble roofline. What's more, Fiat has fixed the Cinquecento's awkward Italianate driving position – it's much easier to find a comfortable station in front of the squircle-look steering wheel.
This Fiat feels positively massive inside thanks to an abundance of tall windows.
Even in our car's rather sober gray and black interior (Fiat is to be commended for offering a wide variety of interior colors), the 500L feels positively light and cheerful, with quality materials and sensible control arrangements all around, something that can't be said for key rivals like the Mini Countryman. Rear seat space is no less generous, with ample leg- and shoulder room, though headroom is a bit tight for anyone above five foot, nine inches when the $950 glass roof is ordered. The stadium-style rear seats slide fore and aft up to 4.7 inches and offer articulated backrests, and they tumble forward to maximize cargo space, though the resulting load floor is far from flat. With the seats erect, cargo capacity is rated at generous 21.3 cubic feet. Overall, this 'loft concept' interior has 98.8 cu-ft – around the same size as a Chrysler 300. Speaking of the Pentastar, we've heaped laurels upon the company's UConnect system with navigation in times past, and it's just as good here. For the rest of the year, Fiat is offering the 6.5-inch infotainment system with backup camera and sensors gratis on all models except the entry-level Pop trim, a nice $1,700 gift for early adopters.
European editor Matt Davis tested a Euro-spec model around his Italian home in April, but quite a bit has changed in the model's transition to North American sales, including upsized brakes (12.0-inch vented fronts and 10.4-inch solid rear), all-season tires (225/45 17-inch Goodyear Eagle LS2 radials on our tester), more sound deadening and some standard equipment differences. The biggest difference, however, is the institution of the 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder engine also found in the 500 Abarth and Dodge Dart. This 160-horsepower, 184-pound-feet-of-torque powertrain combination is a North American exclusive – Europeans get a range of less powerful petrol and diesel engines with as few as 85 horsepower. I've found a lot to love with the MultiAir in Abarth tune, but have been less enthused by its Dart application, particularly with the dual-clutch transmission, so I was a bit apprehensive about its presence in the 500L.
Quite a bit has changed in the model's transition to North American sales.
Despite having the same output figures as the Dart and suffering from similar turbo lag (there really isn't much going on below the engine's 2,500-rpm torque peak), power delivery somehow feels more linear thanks to smarter throttle and transmission tuning. Upshifts are quick when summoned with the gearlever's manual gate, but the dual-clutch will occasionally hold gears longer than you might like when left to its own devices. With around 3,300 pounds to tow around, the 1.4 isn't the fireballer that it is in the 500 Abarth, and it doesn't sound particularly noteworthy, but it's not really meant to – the 500L is designed to be a stylish kinschlepper, not a cut-and-thrust hot hatch.
Interestingly, a conventional six-speed automatic is promised shortly (Fiat execs declined to cough up an availability date), which makes us wonder who will bother to opt for the twin-clutch setup after it comes online – it isn't appreciably sportier and it doesn't have paddle shifters. For the moment, the standard six-speed manual is the one to go for, and it has the side benefit of eking out an extra mile per gallon on the EPA's city cycle (25 city and 33 highway vs. 24/33).
Fiat's firm-yet-accommodating compromise seems like a much smarter play for the average buyer.
While it carries the 500L designation, the truth is that this model doesn't share its platform with the Cinquecento. It's more closely related to Fiat's comparatively straight-faced Grande Punto, so it's almost surprising it doesn't carry the Multipla or 600 nameplate. Not only does that mean the 500L benefits from the aforementioned interior space, it also has a comparatively serene ride and good all-around road manners. Suspension is basic but effective – MacPherson struts up front and a simple twist beam out back, but Fiat has wisely splurged on a set of Koni frequency selective dampers that do a fine job of soaking up rutted pavement and keeping the 500L's tall shape on an even keel. That's not to say it's all that athletic. The aforementioned Countryman is miles ahead in terms of engagement and finesse (particularly the steering), but it doesn't have the Mini's deplorable run-flat hobbled ride quality, either. Given that few people buy this type of vehicle with genuinely sporty intentions, the Fiat's firm-yet-accommodating compromise seems like a much smarter play for the average buyer. Besides, that's not to say the 500L is drag to drive – it has a certain verve to it, with light but accurate electric power steering and excellent outward visibility to build confidence.
At present, the 500L is a front-wheel-drive-only affair, and while execs admit that all-wheel drive is technically possible with this platform, they downplayed its likelihood. Mini will thus have this important cold-weather-state edge to itself, but other rivals in this diverse segment, including the Kia Soul, Nissan Cube, Scion xB and even the Ford C-Max all do without. Fiat has already teased a "500X" model with taller ground clearance and more Cinquecento-like looks, so perhaps they will keep the extra drive axles for this as-yet unreleased model. Additionally, a long-wheelbase seven-seat variant of the 500L, which goes by the name 500L Living, has just been announced, but North American sales are not yet confirmed.
The 500L's pricing strikes me as a very fair shake for what amounts to a shockingly spacious and amusingly offbeat machine.
The Serbian-built 500L carries a starting price of $19,100 for the base Pop trim, while the butched-up Trekking asks $21,995 (all prices plus $800 in destination fees). A high-hat Lounge model like this tester comes loaded with leather and the dual-clutch transmission starting at $24,195, though optional niceties like keyless go and active safety tech like blind-spot warning are notable by their absence. Tick all the option boxes on a Lounge and you'll be sitting around $27,500. While the 500's MSRP spread isn't as thrifty as the segment's volume-leading Kia, it starts about $3,000 less than the Countryman and is the superior everyday car to live with, affording greater utility, a nicer interior and a much better ride. All-in, Fiat's pricing strikes me as a very fair shake for what amounts to a shockingly spacious and amusingly offbeat machine. Overall, my first drive of the 500L has resulted in an unexpected inverse reaction to the 500 that preceded it. It might not have been love-at-raccoon-eyed-sight like it was with the Cinquecento, but the 500L isn't just larger and more practical – in many ways, it's the better, more enjoyable car.