2014 FIAT 500L Expert Review:Autoblog
Back in 2007 when the Fiat 500 was launched, I was unrepentantly nuts about the thing. From the first time my eyes clapped on the Nuevo Cinquecento at the Geneva Motor Show that year, I wanted one. Since there were no plans for a North American model at the time, I had to settle for purchasing a 1/18th-scale diecast at the expo. When Fiat finally returned to the US and the Cinquecento went on sale in 2011, I was no less excited.
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.
New Car Test Drive
Italian flair in an American-sized package.
There's no doubt the all-new 2014 Fiat 500L will turn heads. The second model to debut since Fiat re-launched in North America, the five-seat 500L boasts stylish Euro design at an attainable price. And unlike the original Fiat 500 which some may dismiss as too tiny, the Fiat 500L boasts cavernous passenger and cargo space, while maintaining a compact footprint and signature Fiat looks.
Built on an all-new platform, the body of the 2014 Fiat 500L shares no common parts with the Fiat 500, yet the family resemblance is clear. Fiat designers say the L in the 500L stands for Loft, and the wagon's spacious, upright design was meant to mimic the high ceilings and artsy vibe found in urban live/work units. Square and rectangular shapes with rounded corners can be found everywhere, from the steering wheel to the taillights.
Compared with the original Fiat 500, the 500L is nearly two feet longer, six inches wider, and six inches taller. Aside from being bigger, the 500L is distinguishable from its smaller predecessor by its stretched-back, oval headlamp housings and its three-piece panoramic windshield. Four versions of the 2014 Fiat 500L are available: Pop, Easy, Trekking, and Lounge. Trekking models have a unique, toothy front grille, as well as different bumpers and side moldings, giving it a rugged look.
All models are powered by a 1.4-liter Multi-Air turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the same found in the sporty Fiat 500 Abarth. It makes 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Gearbox choices include a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed Euro twin-clutch transmission. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 25/33 mpg City/Highway with the manual and 24/33 mpg City/Highway with the twin-clutch gearbox. Fiat said a traditional 6-speed automatic transmission will be available.
Spaciousness inside the Fiat 500L is surprising. On the road, the wagon looks relatively compact. Yet inside, the feeling is open and airy, ideal for drivers who feel constricted in smaller wagons and crossovers. However, those who prefer a cabin that envelops its occupants may feel a bit lost in the interior of the 500L, as if they're sloshing around with room to spare.
Standard features on the Fiat 500L are pretty basic, but look for special deals on a package with navigation, rearview camera and rear park assist.
Cargo space is plentiful with 21.3 cubic feet with all seats in place, and much more with the rear seats folded down, making it the roomiest in its class. The rear seats do not automatically fold flush with the rear cargo area, but the cargo floor can be raised to make a completely flat surface.
On the road, the 2014 Fiat 500L offers ample power for everyday driving. The turbocharged engine provides enough oomph for lane changes and uphill climbs. Suspension is firm but not teeth-chattering, and the car stays composed around corners, unless pushed hard. Not everyone will like the feel of the Euro twin-clutch transmission, but it's a good alternative for those who don't want to row through the gears, especially since the point of engagement on the clutch pedal is unusually high on cars equipped with the manual gearbox.
Competitors to the Fiat 500L include other small wagons like the Mini Countryman, which offers its own unique styling and the cachet of the Mini brand, but at a higher price, and boxy, compact utility vehicles like the Kia Soul and Nissan Cube. For those willing to live with a few idiosyncrasies, the 2014 Fiat 500L is a good alternative for those who want space and practicality in a distinctive package.
The 2014 Fiat 500L comes in four trim levels. All are powered by the same 1.4-liter Multi-Air turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque with a choice of 6-speed manual or 6-speed Euro twin-clutch transmission. EPA fuel economy estimates are 25/33 mpg City/Highway with the manual and 24/33 mpg City/Highway with the twin-clutch gearbox.
Fiat 500L Pop ($19,100) comes with fabric upholstery, manually operated air conditioning, manually adjustable seats with driver and passenger height adjustment, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, power windows, remote keyless entry, trip computer, Bluetooth connectivity, the a six-speaker audio system with Fiat's Uconnect interface, a USB port, auxiliary audio jack, heated power outside mirrors, rear window wiper and 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers; a 6-speed automatic is standard. The Euro twin-clutch transmission ($1,350) is optional.
Fiat 500L Easy ($20,195) adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and front and rear. Wheels are 16-inch aluminum. Options include a Preferred Package ($700) which adds dual-zone automatic climate control, power driver seat with lumbar adjustment, auto-dimming rearview mirror, 115-volt power adapter and rear seat armrest with cup holder; a power sunroof ($950), heated front seats ($350) and a contrast-colored painted roof ($500). The Easy Premier Package plus Beats Audio ($700) comes with a premium 6-speaker audio system with subwoofer, SiriusXM satellite radio with 1-year subscription.
Fiat 500L Trekking ($21,195) gets premium cloth bucket seats, unique interior and exterior trim, floor mats, and 17-inch aluminum wheels with wider 225/45R17 all-season tires.
Fiat 500L Lounge ($24,195) comes standard with the Euro-twin clutch transmission plus automatic dual-zone climate control, leather upholstery, heated front seats, four-way power adjustable driver's seat with lumbar, 60/40-split folding rear seats with fore-aft adjustment and a recline and tumble feature; integrated armrest with cup holders, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror with compass, fog lamps, chrome body trim and 16-inch aluminum wheels.
A Premier Package ($1,745) for Easy, Trekking and Lounge models includes an upgraded 6.5-inch touchscreen with navigation, rear back-up camera and rear park assist.
Safety features on all models includes multistage front airbags, front seat- mounted side airbags, side-curtain front airbags, driver's knee airbag, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic stability control, hill start assist. Rear park assist and a rearview camera are optional.
There's no doubt the 500L is a Fiat. Although it shares no common parts with its tiny predecessor the Fiat 500, it shares a common design language that's cute, without being overly precious.
Fiat designers call the 500L the anti-SUV because of its very upright, cab-forward design, a stark contrast from many crossovers and SUVs that are going for sleeker shapes and dramatically sloping rooflines.
Built on an all-new small-wide platform, the body of the 2014 Fiat 500L has a relatively small footprint, despite it being more than two feet longer than the Fiat 500. The windshield is a unique three-piece design, giving it a panoramic look. Square and rectangular shapes with rounded corners can be found everywhere, from the steering wheel to the taillights.
The front fascia looks friendly and approachable. The Fiat badge sits in the center of a moustache-like line above the grille. Trekking models get a toothy grille and dark gray bumper, which give a more utilitarian look. On other trim levels, the grille is more of a gentle smile, with a color-keyed front bumper. Headlights in oval lenses are stretched back along the front fender. Separate round parking lamps sit below the headlamp housings. Tiny round foglights are integrated into the lower front bumper.
From the side, the 500L's upright stance is apparent. The roofline slopes gently, giving it a softer appearance than some of its boxy competitors, but not as dramatically as some of the newer, sleeker crossovers. Side moldings are prominent; they're dark gray on Trekking models and feature a chrome strip on Lounge models. Tiny round side markers mimic the bubbly shapes of the other lights. Base models get 16-inch wheels with plastic covers; our test car had sportier 16-inch aluminum wheels.
In the rear, the hatch is large and flat, accented by an integrated roof spoiler and raised, rounded tail lamps. Rear backup lights continue the square with rounded corner theme, and the tail pipe is small but wide, also with rounded corners. Trekking models get a dark gray license plate surround and a unique rear lower bumper.
It's surprisingly spacious inside the 2014 Fiat 500L. The feeling is open and airy, ideal for taller people and those who feel constricted in smaller wagons and crossovers. However, those who prefer a cabin that envelops its occupants may feel a bit lost in the 500L. The wide interior makes side armrests far away, out of reach for those of smaller stature. The top of the instrument panel is deep, presumably to accommodate the sloping windshield without cutting into cabin space. The rearview mirror, map lights and sunroof switches (on cars so equipped) are more than an arm's length away.
Front seats are comfortable; Fiat designer claim they were inspired by airplane seats (business class, we hope). Our test car, an Easy model, had cloth upholstery. On Trekking models, an upgraded, more rugged cloth interior is optional. Top-of-the line Lounge models get optional premium leather, but we weren't able to see an example of this.
Headroom up front is about on par with its competitors, at 40.7 inches, more than the 40 inches available on the Kia Soul, but short of the 42.6 inches offered in the Nissan Cube. The 500L's optional dual-pane sunroof eats up a tiny bit of headroom, providing a still-spacious 40.4 in front. On a side note, Fiat uses a translucent sunroof cover, which lets in light even when closed, and can create glare on the instrument panel.
The center controls are clean and simple. Three knobs for the climate control are large and easy to use. Chrysler's Uconnect handsfree system comes standard, which allows users to pair their phones via Bluetooth and control audio functions using a 5-inch touch screen or with voice recognition. Uconnect can also receive text messages and send pre-set, canned messages while driving.
Cars equipped with navigation get a 6.5-inch color touchscreen and Sirius satellite radio. We found the touchscreen interface easy to use, and we particularly like being able to switch between 2D and 3D views, as well as change map orientation, straight from the main map display. It's a refreshing change from most systems where you have to delve deep into a menu of options.
One feature we came to loathe during our test drive is an electronic voice that curtly tells you the current speed limit if you happen to go a little too fast. This electronic babysitter might be helpful to some, but we found her annoying.
Although it's generally well designed, the Fiat 500L cabin has a few peculiarities. Body-colored sheet metal is exposed along the seams of the doors, and because of this design, the interior door trim looks rather stuck-on. We could also see a small impression on each A-pillar, which are presumably exposed welds painted over. Also, the parking brake lever is huge, and looks like a control you'd find in an Airbus jet.
Doors and armrests of our test car were covered with a light gray fabric; they looked good new, but we imagine they'd get dirty quickly. The texture was also slightly rough to the touch. The fabric-like vinyl covering the instrument panel was also slightly textured, like the finest grit sandpaper. Base Pop models get a plastic instrument panel painted to match the exterior.
Storage space up front is minimal. Front door pockets are wide enough to hold an average-sized water bottle, but nothing bigger. The center armrest on our Easy test model was narrow, and only offered enough room for a mobile phone.
Audio quality is adequate on the base sound system, but, like others in this class, is nothing special. The upgraded Beats audio package with subwoofer sounds better, and the difference was most noticeable when listening to bass-thumping pop, house and hip hop. With the volume up loud, music sounded clear with very little distortion.
Rear legroom is plentiful in the Fiat 500L and measures 36.7 inches. It's less than the Kia Soul's 39 inches, but more than the Mini Countryman's 33.8 inches and the Nissan Cube's 35.5 inches. There's also plenty of headroom, measuring 38 inches with the sunroof and 38.7 inches without. That's shy of the Nissan Cube's 40.2 inches and the 2013 Kia Soul's 40 inches (Soul is being redesigned for 2014). The Mini Countryman gets 38 inches on all trim levels.
Rear seatbacks in the Fiat 500L are flat without much side support, making the back best for short trips. The middle seat is also very narrow, and the center console eats into foot space, so it's best left to small children.
Cargo space is best in this class, measuring a roomy 21.3 cubic feet with the rear seats in place. That blows away the Nissan Cube's 11.4 cubes, the Mini Countryman's 16.5 cubic feet and the Kia Soul's 19.3 cubes. Rear seats split 60/40 for more versatility, though they do not automatically fold flush with the rear cargo area; the cargo floor must be raised to make a completely flat surface. Smaller adults might find the rear hatch a little heavy to close, but a built-in handle on the inside makes it easier to manage.
Overall, we found the fit and finish of the Mini Countryman interior to be nicer, but we prefer the cabin of the Fiat to that of the Kia Soul. An extensive use of hard plastics gives the Kia a less-premium look, and the wide A-pillar and large side mirrors makes for a larger blind spot than the Fiat's open three-pane windshield design.
On the road, the 2014 Fiat 500L offers ample power for everyday driving. The 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine provides enough oomph for lane changes and uphill climbs. Acceleration is smooth and its 184 pound-feet of torque kept power on tap at relatively low rpms. The engine is quiet at city speeds, but gets noisy at higher rpms.
Our test car was equipped with the optional Euro twin-clutch transmission, which is the same optional gearbox on the Dodge Dart. We felt that shifts could have been quicker, but it's a good alternative for those who don't want to row through the gears, especially since the point of engagement on the clutch pedal is unusually high on models equipped with the 6-speed manual. A traditional 6-speed automatic will also be available.
Suspension is firm but not teeth-chattering. It uses a MacPherson strut setup in front, and a less-common twist beam suspension in rear (this segment typically uses a multi-link rear suspension). Koni frequency selective damping is borrowed from the Fiat 500 Abarth. The result is a ride that's firm, but not mind-numbingly harsh. On heavily rutted roads, the 500L stayed comfortable and relatively quiet.
The chassis of the Fiat 500L stays composed around corners, and while there is some body roll when pushed hard, the car stays pretty well planted. The power electric steering is comfortable, but isn't nearly as sporty as its Mini competitor. Four-wheel disc brakes work fine.
Noise inside the cabin is minimal, helped in part by acoustical material on the windshield and in the wheel wells. We did get some road noise, but wind noise was virtually nonexistent.
On a competitive drive in a Mini Countryman, the ride was extremely harsh. The road had to be as smooth as glass in order to feel comfortable. The steering was more direct and precise, however. Acceleration from the Countryman was sluggish, though this was with the base, non-turbo 1.6-liter engine that makes only 121 horsepower, compared with the Fiat's 160 hp. A better comparison would have been against the turbocharged Countryman S, although its sticker price starts at more than $5,000 above our 500L Easy test model.
A drive in the Kia Soul was softer and more comfortable over the bumps and ruts, but steering was numb compared to the Fiat. The Kia had better acceleration on tap compared to the Mini, but it also suffered from more body roll and felt wallowy around corners. In summary, we found the Fiat to be a good middle ground between the 2013 Kia Soul and the Mini Countryman in terms of sportiness and comfort.
The 2014 Fiat 500L is a good alternative for families who don't want to sacrifice looks for utility. While it has a few idiosyncrasies, the 500L offers head-turning design, solid driving dynamics and class-leading cargo space.
Laura Burstein filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after her test drive of the Fiat 500L in Baltimore, Maryland.
Fiat 500L Pop ($19,100); Easy ($20,195); Trekking ($21,195); Lounge ($24,195).
Options As Tested
6-speed twin-clutch transmission ($1,350); Preferred Package 22D ($700): dual-zone automatic climate control, power driver seat with lumbar adjustment, auto-dimming rearview mirror, 115-volt power adapter, rear seat armrest with cup holder; Easy Premier Package plus Beats Audio ($700): Premium 6-speaker audio system with subwoofer, SiriusXM satellite radio with 1-year subscription; power sunroof ($950), heated front seats ($350), black painted roof ($500).
Fiat 500L Easy ($20,195).
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