After a long absence, Fiat returned to our shores a couple of years ago with the cute little 500. About the size of a MINI Cooper hardtop, the pint-size retro two-door hatchback is cute and fun to drive, and has proven economical and reliable so far.
Fiat dealers complained that they had only one car to sell, despite offering different versions. What the revived brand needed was something bigger that still retained much of the appeal of the 500.
Well, for 2014, the new 500L offers four doors (plus the handy hatchback) and lots of room inside. It’s 27 inches longer and six inches taller than the regular 500 and contains 42 percent more space.
The 500L uses the 1.4-liter, 160-horsepower turbocharged engine from the sporty Abarth model of the 500. With its 184 lb.-ft. of torque, it pulls the 3,254-pound 500L down the road well, if not racily. The EPA awards the car with 24 City, 33 Highway, 27 Combined mileage figures; I averaged 24.5 mpg. The Green Vehicle scores are 5 for Smog and 7 for Greenhouse Gas.
My Blanco (white) sample with black interior was a Lounge model - the top of the line. Lounges come only with Fiat's twin-clutch automatic transmission, so if you want a manual, you'll have to pick the Pop or Easy model. The Pop is the entry 500L, while the Easy adds popular favorites, such as 16-inch alloy wheels, leather steering wheel and shift knob, and the option of the automatic gearbox. The Trekking iteration is geared for sportier living, with graphite (gray) body accents, upgraded 17-inch alloy wheels, and a unique interior color scheme.
As I drove around I was surprised that nobody was staring at me. Did they think it was a regular 500? Couldn't they tell it was much bigger? Maybe drivers are just jaded.
The 500L has unusual windshield pillars. These pillars have become tree trunks in recent cars to support the safety cages that protect you. The 500L splits them, with a generous slice of window in between, so you see more pillars but it ends up being quite panoramic and with the generous headroom, you feel like you're in a bigger car.
My car had an optional sunroof that took up nearly the entire top. The front section slides open for fresh air. It's like being on the observation car of the Santa Fe Super Chief. The dash features two gloveboxes, and is covered in what looked like Naugahyde. One hopes this covering will survive years of sun and not crack, like it did in cars of yore. The steering wheel, in leather, features a clever "squared circle" theme, accentuated by the shape of the leather folds and stitching. The presence of leather upgrades the interior significantly.
The automatic climate control system kept the car colder than I'd prefer, even when I set it up to 74 or 75 degrees. I also noticed a squeak - something I am not used to hearing. I don't know if the fact that the car is assembled in Kragujevac, Serbia means anything for quality control.
The small, but sharply rendered screen at center dash features the beautiful graphics that have proliferated across Chrysler/Fiat models. I was able to view and set audio, climate, and other information easily. The 500L has one of my favorites - steering wheel audio controls mounted on the back of the steering wheel spokes, so you can make adjustments in volume, media type and station/track selection without looking away from the road or moving your hands from the wheel.
The audio system, with six optional Beats Audio premium speakers plus subwoofer, pounded out some of the better sound I've heard in a car lately. The Bluetooth phone connection failed a couple of times, but was easy enough to hook up.
The rear cargo floor panel lifts and slides into a higher slot to make the load floor flat when you have the rear seats folded down. The lightweight cargo area cover, however, is balky and made dark marks on the interior surfaces when I attempted to position it.
Pricing starts at just $19,900 for the Pop, including shipping. The Easy begins at $20,995, the Trekking at $21,995, and the Lounge sits at the top at $24,995.
I thought that this car was a lot like a MINI Countryman in proportions and purpose, and it’s just slightly bigger than the big MINI. But you would need to drive both to decide if you’re a MINI maniac or a Fiat fanatic.
Now, with the 500L, you can enjoy fresh Italian styling and performance and bring along your friends and their gear, too. And, you’ll be a member of an exclusive club until these new cars proliferate.