2014 Fiat 500L: Great Things Come In Slightly Larger Packages
All the style of Fiat's tiny 500, but in a size tailored for American tastes.
Right now, it looks like nothing else on the road. But it wouldn't be a surprise if the new Fiat 500L becomes a more familiar sight, as it's got just what it takes to win over new buyers.
Already on sale in Europe for about a year, the plucky 2014 Fiat 500L is the second car in the Italian automaker's lineup to make it to the States. Despite the similar name and family resemblance, though, the 500L has little in common with the tiny 500. This car is larger on all accounts, has four doors, seats five adults—four comfortably—and can carry quite a bit of cargo.In fact, the only major component the 500L shares with its smaller sibling is the 160-hp 1.4L MultiAir Turbo engine that's also found under the hood of the wild Abarth 500. In the case of the 500L, it's a perfect match for the mini-crossover, equally suited for zipping around town and long, high-speed highway slogs. Mated to a six-speed manual, it's an absolute blast to drive. That would be a ridiculous statement to make in Europe, where the 500L is sold as an MPV, the continental equivalent of a minivan. But in the US, the new Fiat is positioned as an "urban utility vehicle," a quirky crossover in the mold of the Nissan Juke and Mini Countryman, as likely to haul kids and pets as bikes and surfboards.
Unlike those competitors, the 500L doesn't yet offer all-wheel drive. But equipped with a $950 power sunroof with glass that stretches across the entire roof, thoughts of snow disappear. The sunlight doesn't stop there, with even the front and rear pillars split by windows. While it took us a moment to get used to this lanai on wheels, all that glass gave the car an airy, open feel and also helped us spot pedestrians and bikes.
It also means 500L drivers should get used to comments, stares, and pointed fingers. Like those old Mentos commercials, something about this car stands out as distinctly foreign. Inside, things are just as avant garde, with funky patterns and interesting textures that somehow avoid gaudiness. This is possibly the most unique looking car on sale in the US, and it speaks to its European heritage. More than once, we were stopped by accented expats who were excited to see a small slice of home on American roads.
That makes this cheeky little Fiat the cheapest way to get paparazzi-level attention from your ride: The bare-bones 500L Pop starts at just $19,100, and the well-equipped Easy we drove stickered at $23,495 with a decent Beats audio system, heated front seats, and a few other options. Even the priciest Lounge model, loaded with an automatic and leather, goes for just $27,895.
Quality-wise, what could you possibly expect from such an inexpensive car whose development budget seemed to be spent entirely on design? Despite the fact it was built in a Serbian factory that once churned out dismal Yugos back in the 1980s, initial quality seemed to be excellent. Our only complaints were a seat heater switch that felt tacked on, and a few places where double-sided tape had been sloppily applied. As our tester was one of the first cars to make it to the US, we wouldn't be surprised if those were just early production hiccups.
We did have a few bigger complaints that went beyond the factory: For one, the small recess next to the USB input was just slightly too small to fit any popular smartphone. There was no way to block sunlight from coming in through the too-tall windows. We were unable to find a seating position where the steering wheel didn't block the gauge cluster. And while it was great to fold the back seats down, they also folded fully forward for added fuss with little cargo benefit.
But those were small potatoes compared to what we loved about this car. We observed fuel economy around 26 mpg (the EPA rates it at 25 city/33 highway/28 combines). Acceleration was brisk, even when passing on the highway, thanks to that Abarth engine. The six-speed manual was both responsive and comfortable, with easy throws. And did we mention how much fun it was to drive?
The 500L also debuts a new, more basic version of Chrysler's Uconnect infotainment system that will also be featured as an entry-level option on cars across the Fiat-owned Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram brands. It lags the fancier iterations of Uconnect in speed and features, but thankfully has the same chunky buttons and big icons.
It's easy to sync it with a phone for music and calls, and navigation proved straightforward. There's even a feature that tells you when you're going over the speed limit, which came in handy during our tests. We weren't thrilled with its sub-par altimeter, however, which meant it occasionally couldn't tell the difference between a tunnel, a bridge, and a surface road.
For 2014, it's free: Uconnect is part of the Premier Package that Fiat's throwing in as a no-cost option this year only on Easy, Trekking, and Lounge trims. It also includes a back-up camera and park assist, and normally costs $1,745.
Goodies like no-cost options and a sub-$20k opening price point may help move traffic into dealerships, but there's a lot more to love about the latest, largest Fiat. If American buyers can get comfortable with its unusual looks and a relatively unfamiliar nameplate, the Fiat 500L has what it takes to be the first Italian car to gain mainstream acceptance in the US.
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