After a rocky start in America that included a series of strangely schizophrenic ad campaigns, Fiat says that sales of their adorably Italian 500 are finally surging. But dealers and customers alike have been clamoring for something larger but equally cute and Euro-chic. Can the embiggened 500L fit the bill?
(Full disclosure: Fiat wanted me to drive the 2014 500L so badly that they put me up at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore, the car's port of entry in the U.S., and paid for all my food and booze. That included lunch at the Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, an amazing place you need to go to the next time you're in that city. I paid for the Amtrak ride from and to D.C. because it's only like $16. You're welcome, Sergio.)
If you dig the 500L, you need to send the folks at BMW an edible arrangement or something to say thank-you. Fiat's new mini-crossover SUV follows the Mini Countryman playbook pretty closely: Take many of the same design cues that made the cute, retro small car such a success, and then blow them up by adding bigger rear seats and an extra set of doors to make the whole package much more appealing for a wider audience.
And it is indeed bigger. This Grande Cinquecento is two feet longer, six inches wider, and seven inches taller than the little 500, and it purportedly offers 42 percent more cargo space. Fiat calls it an "Urban Utility Vehicle," but it's really just a large five-door hatchback.
Fiat is banking on the 500L being a big hit here in North America, particularly among people who fell in love with the smaller car's looks but needed or wanted something that do more in the way of hauling kids, friends, or assorted crap bought at strip malls.
But the 500L isn't merely a stretched-out version of the 500. It rides on an entirely different platform, Fiat's Small Wide platform, and unlike the Mexican-built 500, the 500L is built in Serbia at the former Yugo plant. (How awesome is that?)
The result is a car that looks like a 500 on the outside, but is markedly different in terms of character, interior, and driving dynamics. The whole package feels especially tailored to American tastes, and while that's not a bad thing necessarily, it does mean this is a whole other game than the baby 500.
(Update: As my co-driver on this trip and Jalopnik Detroit scribe Aaron Foley pointed out, I forgot to mention that Fiat saw fit to send us an update over the speakers anytime we were exceeding Maryland's absurdly low speed limits. This isn't on the production car, but it was absolutely infuriating for us. Having a nav that screams at me when I keep up with traffic is not the way to win journalists over, people.)
Honestly, this was the hardest category for me to assign a numerical value to, because there are things I really like about the Fiat 500L's design and things I really do not.
It's a distinctive exterior, and one that borrows enough cues from the 500 — particularly in its front fascia — that it is unmistakably a Fiat, or at least, a Fiat as modern Americans understand them. I also like that it invokes the old Fiat 600 Multipla people mover from the 50s and 60s, and that's a nice homage to the brand's past. (Which brings up another point: Why still call this the 500 and not the 600 or something like that?)
But I also feel that it's too derivative of the Mini Cooper Countryman, albeit one with a 500 face on it. In addition, the America-only "Trekking" trim level comes loaded down with cheap plastic Pontiac Aztek-style body cladding to make it look more "rugged" and SUV-like than it is, but it doesn't do so convincingly. I'm also not a fan of the MASSIVE 500L badge on the hatch. That could have been done a bit more tastefully.
I bumped it up from a 6 to a 7 in this category because, hey, in spite of these deficiencies at least it isn't boring.
Here's where we really start to see the differences in character between this car and the 500. Gone is the trick integrated speedometer/tachometer, the big, colorful swath of round plastic across the dash, and the gearshift sticking out of that dash like a rally car.
Instead, we have a more traditional two-gauge setup with an info screen between them, bigger A/C vents, and the UConnect 5-inch touchscreen placed prominently in the center. Cupholders and storage spaces abound here. See what I mean about it being tuned more to American tastes?
Interior materials are mostly good, save for a few cheap-feeling plastics here and there. The massive, fist-shaped parking brake is... odd, but it works. As for the squircle-shaped steering wheel, it looks cool, but it's a bit clunky to use, and I never found a way to position it where it was comfortable and not blocking my view of the speedometer.
Also, the wheel lacks paddles for the twin clutch gearbox, but in their place are buttons that control the radio behind the wheel. You can't see them. I don't know why they're there. Would it have killed you to put those on the front of the wheel, Fiat? Until I knew better I thought I was downshifting, when all I did was change the satellite radio to Willie Nelson (That's never a bad thing, though.).
In spite of these quibbles, the inside of the 500L is generally a pleasant place to spend time, mainly because there are so many windows and extra pillars. Fiat says one of the meanings of "L" is "loft," and it feels like an airy, spacious place, especially if you splurge for the big panoramic glass roof.
One engine is available on the Fiat 500L, and that's a 1.4-liter MultiAir SOHC turbo four-cylinder motor that puts out 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. It's the same engine that's in the kickass Fiat 500 Abarth, The World's Loudest And Angriest Little Car®, and while it doesn't deliver the same noise — we'll get to that in a moment — it does offer plenty of pep.
The MultiAir doesn't have a ton of ooomph at low revs, but once the turbo is fully spooled up past 3,000 RPMs or so, it's quick enough for highway passing and zippy maneuvers around town. Official zero to 60 mph times weren't released, but I'd put it in the 8-second range based on my own personal butt dyno.
The 500L is still relatively light for its size, so it doesn't take much to get it moving, although the engine won't be blowing any doors off Abarth-style.
Standard on all 500L models are 12-inch rotors up front and 10.4-inch rotors in the rear, both with single-pistons. They actually do an excellent job of stopping the car. They're nice and grippy with a surprisingly strong pedal feel. No complaints in that department - it's a sporty car, and the brakes get it done in the USA, baby.
The 500L cribs the Koni frequency selective damping shock absorbers at all four corners from the 500 Abarth. That it goes a long way toward a ride that is smooth and comfortable, but still errs on the sporty side without beating you up or anything. It's a ride quality that suits the car's character.
But the car's handling suffers thanks to its electric power steering system. It's not that it's overly floaty, it's that it feels completely divorced from the rest of the car. You get little to no steering feel at all, and that disconnect hardly makes you feel confident about tossing it into corners.
On the other hand, it's light and easy to use, and that's probably appropriate for what the average 500L buyer wants.
I spent most of my drive time with the Euro Twin Clutch transmission, and overall, I liked it. Fiat gets a thumbs-up for putting gearshift layout in the correct "up for down/down for up" setup. Shifts could stand to be a bit quicker, but they are direct and they will properly hold a gear in manual mode when you want to go to redline.
The six-speed manual, unfortunately, was a bit of a disappointment. The clutch has a nice linear feel with a solid engagement point, but shifts are too long and the gearbox feels rubbery. The manual isn't especially fun to use, and it doesn't add much to the car. (By comparison, I got to drive the 5-speed manual 500 Abarth as well, and it's vastly better.)
As I mentioned earlier, the motor comes from the 500 Abarth, and while it doesn't have that car's insanely loud and raucous exhaust and engine note — then again, what does? — the 500L offers a nice growl of its own. It's a distinctively Italian sound and one that is pleasing to the ear under hard driving. It certainly has more auditory character than most small-displacement fours do.
As much as I gripe about infotainment systems in cars, this is probably one of the better ones I've sampled. The menus are fairly intuitive, they don't lag, and the inclusion of actual, physical buttons below the screen make it easy to navigate. UConnect is pretty solid overall.
The big hatch/faux-crossover segment has really blown up in recent years. As I mentioned before, the 500L's primary competition is probably the Cooper Countryman, but the Fiat undercuts that car by a couple thousand dollars. It isn't as quick or fun to drive as the Cooper S Countryman, but that's quite a bit more expensive.
Other competitors, according to Fiat, include the Scion xB and Nissan Cube. I'd add the Juke to that list, and while it isn't as pretty, it's a better performer with similar equipment that's cheaper still.
If you're looking for a small, sporty people mover, and you put more of an emphasis on style than backroad corner carving, the 500L is worth checking out.
I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we'll get a 500L Abarth at some point. If it's half as insane as the 500 Abarth, and if it has more power, better steering and a tighter manual, it would be something Jalops everywhere should consider taking their kids to school in.
Engine: 1.4 Liter Turbocharged Inline Four
Power: 160 HP at 5,500 RPM/ 184 LB-FT at 2,500 RPM
Transmission: Six Speed Manual or Six Speed Dual Clutch Automated Manual
0-60 Time: 8.0 seconds (estimated)
Top Speed: Not Specified
Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,203 LBS (manual)/ 3,254 LBS (dual clutch)
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 25 city/ 33 highway / 28 combined (manual)
24 city / 33 highway / 27 combined (dual clutch)
MSRP: $27,445 as tested