First Drive: 2014 Fiat 500L

Big things come in small packages.

by on Jun.17, 2013

Fiat Lands its Second Model, the 500L.

After a painfully slow start, Fiat has gained significant market momentum in recent months as it has delivered a growing range of new products to its U.S. showrooms, including the new 500e battery-electric vehicle.

But there’s only so far you can go no matter how many variants you come up with off the same minicar platform and Fiat’s U.S. planners are well aware that the most common reason potential buyers turn elsewhere is because the 500 coupe is simply too small for the majority of buyers.

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No wonder, then, that the maker is investing so much time and effort into the launch of the 2014 Fiat 500L, the all-new people-mover that is just beginning to roll into American showrooms – or “studios” as the Italian automaker prefers to call them.

The standard Fiat 500L (l) with the Trekking version specifically designed for the U.S.

Size is a matter of perspective and compared to most American cars, the 500L is still quite compact. But it’s nonetheless a full 27 inches longer than the original 500 coupe, while also 6 inches wider and 6 inches taller.

What is likely to come as a shock, however, is the unexpected sense of spaciousness when you slip inside the Fiat 500L. There, the new people-move has nearly as much room as the big Chrysler 300 sedan. Add the Panorama sunroof that stretches virtually the entire length of the passenger compartment and you might have a hard time believing you’re sitting inside something with such a small footprint. Hard as it might seem to believe, you actually can get three adults into the back seat with reasonable comfort.

Add the fact that the “greenhouse,” or upper half of the cabin, is all glass and you quickly come to appreciate the commanding view of the road you get while driving the Fiat 500L.

A detail from the Fiat 500L interior reveals a clear Italian approach to styling.

The cabin is a nicely styled affair.  The influence of Italian fashion is obvious in the detailing of the seats, doors and instrument panel. One of the nicer touches is the way Fiat designers use contrasting fabric to give the round steering wheel a square appearance.

Like the Mini Countryman, the vehicle the new Italian people-mover is most likely to be compared with, beauty is clearly in the eyes of the beholder.  To our eyes, in particular, the design is a little awkward and ungainly.  But during a day of driving we found plenty of folks turning their heads and smiling as we passed by.

Clearly, Fiat has big plans for the little 500L, the brand’s new U.S. boss Jason Stoicevich telling that he expects sales of the little people-mover to roughly match those of the original 500 coupe and convertible.

And as with that microcar, Fiat plans to offers a wide range of 500L variants, including the base Pop model, starting at $19,900 – including $800 for delivery charges – up to the $24,995 Fiat 500L Lounge.  The mid-range model is the $20,995 Easy.

The interior of the Fiat 500L is not just roomy but offers great visibility.

But the version likely to generate the biggest following is the 2014 Fiat 500L Trekking.  With its modest wheel well cladding and other details designed to create a more rugged, crossover-like appearance, it’s the closest version, in visual appearance, to the $22,000 Countryman, and most in line with American tastes.

Moving up in the price range gets you a variety of appealing features, including a larger infotainment screen, leather wrapped wheel, heated leather-and-cloth seats and more.  But even the bas Fiat 500L model offers a surprisingly good level of standard equipment, including a tilt/telescope steering wheel, 16-inch wheels, a 5-inch touchscreen, chrome exhaust tips and heated power side mirrors.

As with Mini, Fiat has picked up on the growing customization trend so each version offers a range of exterior colors and interior combinations.  There’s even a 2-tone roof option.

Surprisingly, what a Fiat 500L buyer won’t get is a choice of engines.  The people-mover shares its turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-four with the smaller 500 Abarth, as well as the Dodge Dart. In this package it makes 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.  As with the Dart, there is a modest amount of turbo lag but the engine does a nice job on the whole.

It may have a microcar footprint but the interior is as big as a Chrysler 300.

While you’ll have one engine offering, Fiat does have two transmissions – with a third to follow.  There’s a six-speed manual and a six-speed Euro Twin Clutch.  To our delight, the latter exhibited none of the jerky starts we’ve experienced with some other twin-clutch packages.  Shifts, overall, are virtually imperceptible.

Fiat plans to add a more conventional 6-speed automatic later in the 2014 model-year.  We don’t know why.  The Euro Twin Clutch should satisfy most needs.

While Fiat officials assert there is no Abarth edition in the works, they quickly append that statement with the word, “now.” We’d be far from surprised if that performance version follows in a year or so.

The 2014 Fiat 500L rides on a front MacPherson strut suspension with a twist-beam rear. Meanwhile, the people-mover features Koni frequency-selective damping shocks.  That’s a fancy way of saying it can respond rapidly to difference road conditions to find a good balance between comfort and handling.

The Fiat 500L shares its turbocharged 1.4-liter engine with the smaller 500 Abarth edition.

Indeed, the 500L is one of the more comfortable vehicles in its segment, no easy feat considering that short wheelbase vehicles tend to get jounced around pretty easily.  Handling it reasonable firm and predictable though those who want a really solid and well-planted ride are probably going to be drawn to Mini.

On the whole, the new Fiat 500L is an impressive second act for the Italian automaker’s return to the American market.  True, some folks simply won’t appreciate the styling.  But those who do, we’re betting, will likely be smitten.  The 500L offers a roomy, comfortable and well-equipped package for a reasonably affordable price.  It’s not for everyone, but it’s likely to attract enough buyers to keep Fiat’s momentum going in the right direction.

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One Response to “First Drive: 2014 Fiat 500L”

  1. Jorge M. says:

    These micreo cars may be suitable for Europe but not the U.S. where SUVs can just roll over them without hardly a bump.

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