2014 Fiat 500L

The saying goes that man cannot live by bread alone, and neither can automakers live by selling one car alone. This holds especially true for automakers with a budding dealer network to support, like the Fiat brand, which returned to US shores in 2011 after a 28-year absence. The company's single car to sell at the time was the Fiat 500, a cute retro rebirth of the original, iconic Cinquecento, which your toddler now calls Luigi thanks to Pixar.

Since then, the new 500 has sold reasonably well here in the US, and the Fiat brand has been following the same playbook that another purveyor of pint-sized autos, Mini, has used: sell as many variants as you can of the one model you've got. So we have the 500, 500C drop top, high-performance 500 Abarth, all-electric 500e and a few additional trim levels and special editions to further fill dealer showrooms. But the axiom that automakers cannot live selling one car alone still stands, and so Fiat has finally introduced its second model, the larger 500L.

Executive Editor Chris Paukert completed our First Drive of the 500L back in June, and was left pleasantly surprised by its combination of utility, offbeat style, fun-to-drive demeanor and value. We've also, however, read some scathing reviews, like this one from The New York Times. I wasn't sure where the truth lay when the keys for this top-trim 2014 Fiat 500L Lounge were handed to me, but finding out would be but a short week of together time away.
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The 500L has so many other things to offer that can't all be sunk by styling alone.

Some people dismiss vehicles simply because of their styling, and we suspect the 500L will deter its fair share of shoppers with a design some find too unattractive to live with. Those elements we find so darling on the peewee 500 appear stuck on the larger 500L like the eyes, nose and mouth of a Mr. Potato Head, and the tall, thin shape that maximizes usable space inside does it few favors on the outside. That said, Executive Editor Paukert's words about familiarity breeding acceptance rang true for me by the end of the week; while I'm still no fan of its design, the 500L has so many other things to offer that can't all be sunk by styling alone.

Of course, there are many colors and trims available to tweak the 500L's looks to your liking, though not the same plethora of interesting hues offered on the 500. This tester is a top-spec Lounge trim in Bianco White with the optional $500 Nero Black roof, $950 twin-pane power moonroof and all the trimmings, including a chrome-like treatment for exterior trim pieces like including the door handles, side-view mirrors and taillight surrounds, as well as fog lamps and optional 17-inch aluminum wheels with black accents ($500). There are three other trims – Pop, Easy and Trekking – but the only real alternative to the look you see here is the Trekking model, which butches up the front end in a faux crossover style with an altogether different lower fascia made of matte black plastic.

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Its outward view is like watching an IMAX movie of the passing world.

Of all the things the 500L has to offer, though, its interior is its biggest selling point. For one, the view from the driver's seat of a 500L is wholly unique. We're in an era of automobile design where window lines are rising, windshields are getting more raked and shorter in height, and visibility overall is declining in favor of cameras and sensors to see our way around things. In contrast, the 500L's outward view is like watching an IMAX movie of the passing world. The windshield height itself is an awesome gift if you hate cranking your neck at intersections while waiting for a light to turn green, but the unique quarter windows between the front windshield and side glass are the real difference-makers.

Other vehicles have quarter windows (the Honda Fit comes to mind), but there are none we can remember so vertical that also reach the same height as the side windows. Also, the 500L's pair of A-pillars are so thin, again in contrast to industry trends, that these quarter windows are functional, allowing visibility of pedestrians and objects that might normally be obscured by a big, thick A-pillar while turning. Throw in that optional twin-pane roof, and on a sunny day, it feels like you are driving around in the top of a lighthouse. The one drawback to all this glass is the sunvisors, which are inadequately sized for the job. They are decent in height but not in length, which is particularly frustrating when trying to block sunlight through the driver or front passenger's side window because they don't extend further out on their arms.

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It's the worst implementation of the best infotainment system on the market.

There's more to the interior than great expanses of glass, though. The 500L benefits from offering Chrysler's excellent Uconnect infotainment and navigation system. In fact, on all but the base Pop trim, Fiat is including the system plus a rear view camera and proximity sensors free of charge through the end of the year. This version of Uconnect, however, uses a smaller 6.5-inch screen compared to the massive 8.4-inch display in most newer Chrysler cars. While still full of features and quick to respond, the user interface is cramped, and the screen easily washes out in sunlight (a particularly unpleasant trait in a car with this much glass). It's the worst implementation of the best infotainment system on the market, which means it's still among the best available in this lower-cost segment. Our test model also included the Beats premium audio system with subwoofer, a $500 option you can forego unless you like your bass levels higher than normal at all times.

Three easy-to-use knobs operate the dual-zone climate control system, below which are inputs for an SD card, USB device or AUX input. Being exposed rather than tucked in a glove box or armrest makes these ports easily accessible and convenient to use, and a small cubby to the right can hold your phone while it's charging. That is, if your phone's not too tall; an iPhone 5 sticks out too far when placed in the cubby. Fortunately, there's another shelf below the glovebox that's tilted up with a rubber, bubbled surface that's great for gripping smartphones.

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The front seats of the 500L are lifted off the floor to make an upright seating position that's more like a minivan than a car. This creates a great perch from which to see through the expansive glass and grip the thick, canted, leather-covered steering wheel. The seats themselves, however, could use more cushion and the short bottoms don't provide enough thigh support. Their height off the floor also requires bending forward to reach your beverages in the cupholders located below the input ports.

The collection of configurations for the rear cargo area is as clever and useful as a Swiss Army Knife.

The second row of seats is raised even higher than the front seats for a stadium effect, but the optional moonroof in our tester robs rear seat passengers of precious headroom. Six-footers seated in back will easily make contact with the roof, but we're told by others who've tried the 500L sans sunroof that those missing inches and then some are restored without the ceiling glass. The seats also slide 4.7 inches fore and aft and the seat backs recline so a pair of rear passengers should have no problem finding comfort.

Behind that second row you'll find 21.3 cubic feet of cargo space, an ample amount by anyone's standards. The rear bench splits 60/40 and each section folds forward, but the flat surface they create is much higher than the floor of the rear cargo area. That floor, however, is actually a board that can be removed and reinserted at a height that matches the second-row seat back, thus creating a perfectly flat and level floor. The second row of seats can also be tilted forward, creating a tall cavity of cargo space from floor to ceiling that's accessible through the side doors. This collection of configurations for the rear cargo area is as clever and useful as a Swiss Army knife, and second only to that expansive view as our favorite thing about the 500L.

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Where the 500L begins to falter is its mechanicals, specifically the pairing of its 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged four-cylinder engine with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. In isolation, the engine itself is well-suited to the task of motivating all 3,254 pounds of the 500L. This is the same powerplant used in the high-performance 500 Abarth, but tuned for a different mission. It still produces 160 horsepower, but pulling power rises from 170 to 184 pound-feet of torque, and gone is the Abarth's maleficent growl. There's still more than enough power to move the 500L smartly, and it feels a tick or two more eager while underway than most of its competitive set.

This is the same powerplant used in the 500 Abarth, but tuned for a different mission.

A defining feature of the MultiAir engine in all of its applications, which also includes the Dodge Dart, is turbo lag. This delayed wallop of power was once common to turbocharged engines and in this case, it's still normally minor enough to be considered acceptable (some people even enjoy the 'boost' effect). However, the 500L's dual-clutch transmission can be jerky when accelerating from a stop or changing gears from Reverse to Drive, and that behavior combined with the engine's turbo lag creates a broken experience. Where one expects a smooth, predictable flow of power, there is instead a stuttering launch off the line that's exacerbated when the turbo's extra power arrives. Fortunately, a traditional six-speed automatic transmission will be available for the 500L soon, and a six-speed manual is available in the meantime and offers buyers an extra mile per gallon of fuel economy with an EPA rating of 25 City / 33 Highway versus the DCT-equipped model's 24 / 33.

Drivetrain smoothness issues aside, the 500L's handling is surprisingly good. Its European roots are to be credited for a firmer-than-average ride that doesn't wholly swallow bumps or make potholes disappear, but sharp impacts are still well damped. The fair tradeoff is more composure while cornering than would typically be expected from a tall, boxy utility vehicle like this. Steering is also satisfying thanks to the squarish wheel's high level of accuracy converting your inputs into varying degrees of L and R, despite the power assistance not fading away enough as more miles-per-hour are collected.

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The Fiat comes to market with a starting price nearly $1,000 below the magic $20k number.

While the ride is reasonably compliant, we didn't find the 500L a great road trip companion. One reason already mentioned is the seats, which aren't comfortable for long stints. Another is noise, though not coming from where you might expect. With all that glass and the 500L's upright, aerodynamics-be-damned shape, a great deal of wind noise would almost be understandable, but whooshes and whistles are kept in check. Road noise from the tires and decibels sneaking into the cabin from the engine compartment, however, are higher than average. The drone would be annoying on longer trips, and helps keep the 500L experience a class below more luxurious outlier competitors like the smaller, more premium Buick Encore.

The Buick's near-silent operation and luxurious appointments come at the expense of space and utility, whereas the 500L offers plenty of both with a few rough edges. The Fiat also comes to market with a starting price nearly $1,000 below the magic $20k number. A base 500L Pop begins at $19,100, while our top-trim Lounge tester requests a still-reasonable $24,195 base price (not including an $800 destination charge). With options like the twin-pane roof, black Nero roof, Beats-branded audio system and 17-inch wheels, its as-tested price with destination reached $27,445, which does not include the free-of-charge Uconnect infotainment and navigation system, rear camera and back-up sensors valued collectively at $1,745.

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The 500L is simply a hard value to beat.

The 500L is simply a hard value to beat. Combining an equal amount of space and utility with this many premium features would put you into a loaded midsize crossover costing over $30k. Competitors like the aforementioned Encore and redesigned 2014 Kia Soul may offer similar features, but lack the capacity to swallow as much cargo in so many clever ways. And while there's no denying the 500L looks and occasionally acts like an awkward European on our soil, its gawky styling and unmatched outward views may appeal to the non-conformist set who sigh every time a Honda CR-V drives by.

By adding the 500L to its menu, Fiat should begin attracting all of those buyers who initially found the brand appealing, but whose lifestyles needed more than what the 500 had to offer. And if past precedent can be trusted, we may have a high-performance 500L Abarth in the future to look forward to, as well. With or without, though, the 500L will help ensure that Fiat dealers aren't starved for buyers because of limited offerings, and as a sophomore effort in the US, it more than satisfies.