2014 Fiat 500L Test Drive
It's the Revolutionary War. A sentry stationed high upon a hill spies a cloud of dust in the distance. Alarmed, he turns to his fellow colonists and declares, "The British are coming! The British are coming!" No one makes much of a fuss.
Upon closer examination, the young soldier realizes it's not the Brits, but four Fiat 500Ls in a diamond formation blazing down a dirt path. In Revere-like form, he warns the townspeople, "It's the Italians!" Immediately, they shed their drab colonial garb, set espressos on the table and let the party begin with their Old World visitors.
This is the premise of the latest in a series of uniformly awesome commercials Fiat has aired since returning to the United States in 2010.
Fiat no doubt has the most clever advertising in the industry, adding the one above to a stable of spots that include Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Lopez. Prospective car buyers might be enticed by the advertising, but will also want to know if the company's cars measure up with their 30-second spots.
I drove Fiat's latest offering, the 500L, through the streets of Baltimore to find out. The L is essentially a bigger, wider, longer version of the 500, a hatchback designed to appeal to people who need more space and versatility than the classic compact offers.
How did it measure up? Click through to find out:
Sticker Price: $19,100 - $24,195
Invoice Price: $18,960 - $23,317
Engine: 1.4L turbocharged I4
Transmission: Six-speed manual or a European twin clutch automatic
Performance: 160 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of torque
Fuel economy: Manual: 25 mpg City/33 mpg Highway/28 mpg Combined; Automatic: 24 mpg City/33 mpg Highway/27 mpg Combined
Seating: 5 people
Cargo space: 23.1 cubic feet
Fiat has manufactured the 500 in various iterations since 1936. Eight decades of history and tradition helps make it one of the most recognizable cars on the road today.
History and tradition also raise a complication. In expanding the car to 500L dimensions -– 27 inches longer, 6 inches taller and 6 inches wider than the basic 500 -– it's almost impossible to alter the look without disappointing the legacy. How shall we say this? The 500L looks matronly.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, a Fiat designer says. In conceiving the L, which is the first Fiat designed for both the U.S. and Italian markets, designers pictured the 500 as a car in need of a parent.
"The 500 is a mama's boy," designer Febrizio Barca said, quickly adding the phrase doesn't carry the negative connotations in Italy that it might in the United States. "We said, 'Let's make the 500L the Cinquecento's mama.'"
Once you consider the family-friendly mission of the 500L, it's an image that fits. Yet it's one that only a mother could love. For the rest of us, it will take some time to warm up.
If the exterior offers little more than the cache of driving a relatively new Italian import, the interior is where the 500L really impresses.
Generous amounts of sunlight find their way into the vehicle, and there's nearly 360 degrees of full visibility. A double-paned panoramic sunroof provides 10.8 square feet of light, and Fiat has installed glass in the A through D pillars (the solid part of the car that hold the roof on top of the windows -- they're labeled A for the front column, B for the one right behind the driver's left shoulder and the passenger's right shoulder, C towards the back and D at the hatchback), making see-through spots out of what used to be impediments for vision.
The A-pillar is split into two sections, which further enhances drivers' visibility, and thus, safety. Automakers are constantly touting their innovations. This is a rare one that could really be a game-changer, because it makes such an improvement for driver visibility.
The basic 500 had already earned high marks for feeling roomy for its small size. In the 500L, Fiat has accomplished that feat again, and then some: The 500L has 42 percent more interior space than her mama's-boy son.
The nimble and sporty handling from the 500 doesn't quite carry over to the larger vehicle. And the L's feel won't resemble the power-packed Abarth edition, even though they share the same engine. That's probably because the L, with all its added space, weighs about 700 pounds heavier than the Abarth. Still, even though it's slightly more sluggish than the Abarath, the 500L is still far better than your typical people mover.
A turbocharged engine bolsters the 500L's acceleration and keeps it squarely in the fun-to-drive category. I drove the 500L's chief competitor, the MINI Countryman, to compare the two. There's no doubt the L offers better acceleration. More on that in a minute.
Tech And Infotainment
For the first time, Chrysler's UConnect infotainment system has found its way from into a Fiat vehicle, making its Fiat debut on the 500L, and this is a very promising development.
UConnect is my favorite infotainment software available in the auto industry. It's intuitive. It's easy to use. It's easy to see. It won AOL Autos inaugural Technology Of The Year Award in 2012. Far too many of these systems are distracting and unnecessarily complicated. UConnect is a big win for the everyman.
It's offered on a 6.5-inch screen that would ideally be just a little bigger.
As mentioned, the chief competitor for the 500L is the MINI Countryman, a car that was also the outgrowth of a smaller sibling. There's no doubt the 500L feels speedier in a head-to-head test, but that's the lone head-to-head victory for the Italian entrant.
The MINI's steering felt smooth and engaging. Its interior – while lacking the glass pillars –felt more refined overall. The Countryman also scores a win in fuel economy, besting the 500L by about 2 miles per gallon.
The MINI may be the better car, but it's worth noting it's also more expensive. The base MINI begins at $22,000 versus the 500L's starting price point of $19,100.
More expensive trim levels of the Fiat top out at $24,195, while the Countryman's price can climb as high as $34,000.
Ultimately, there's value in both cars. For the customer interested in keeping several thousands dollars in his or her own pocket, the extras afforded by the MINI may not be worthwhile. If that's the case, the Fiat is a dependable, worthy option.
A roomy car that's compact in size? The 500L is born of inherent contradiction. Somehow, Fiat makes this work.
The outside is awkward only when compared to the iconic original. The L had the potential to wind up looking like a PT Cruiser, and the fact this fate was averted is a tribute to designers.
There's a comfortable amount of interior space, so much so that drivers might actually feel far from the windshield. Glass pillars are unique and a real differentiator between the 500L and its competition. Fuel economy is not exceptional, yet better than most.
Will customers like it?
I imagine the response will be something less robust than women shedding their garments upon its arrival, as they do in the Fiat commercial.
But there may be car buyers who equally loathe the sterile stigma of the minivan and the gas-guzzling SUV monstrosities. For the eclectic customer who seeks something different and still practically needs five seats, there's a lot of appeal and value in the 500L.
Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed @PeterCBigelow.
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