2014 Fiat 500L: Is bigger really better?

by Aaron Cole :: posted in Reviews on October 8th, 2013
Everything about the 2014 Fiat 500L must be bigger.

That’s not a particularly meaningful observation by me, mind you. I have a 3-year-old nephew who can look at both of Fiat’s offerings now, the 500 and 500L, and tell me which is bigger. But everything about the 500L must be bigger. This is the Fiat that the relatively new American brand should pin its hopes on. As the 500 slowly gains a foothold here in the states, its reputation in Europe is nonpareil. The 500 was European car of the year in 2008 (strictly speaking, it won in 2004 as the Fiat Panda, from which the 500 is based) and is more common over there than an inflated self-worth.

While our 500 was highly modified from that European version, it was still basically a port over of a 5-year-old car for Fiat’s first foray back on American shores. This 500L is Fiat’s first attempt in earnest; a brand-new car, designed by Italians and engineered by Americans to capture the market for small, people movers. Hopefully that kind of collaboration will bleed over to other industries in the future: baseball uniforms designed by Prada, Hair Club For Men brought to you by Braschi.

The possibilities are endless.

A car like the 500L runs the very serious risk of turning out as a muddled composition, however. The 500L is a global platform, whereas the 500 was a hit over there and ported over here, we’re now returning the favor. As a rule, Americans like our small utility vehicles to be actually very large and mind numbingly boring to drive. We don’t do twisty city roads very often, we have long open interstates, which is perhaps why we multitask behind the wheel too much.  To that end, the 500L is about two feet longer than the 500, with plenty of room for a small family or Italian models. Two child seats fit in the back seats (with a smidge of room for a booster, I suppose) and that’s really the 500L’s bread-and-olive-oil here: a family car.

If you’re wondering, the “L” stands for “loft,” which is how designers describe the floating roof concept, hovering on top of the blacked out pillars. It could also be used to describe the greenhouse of the 500L that, when combined with the panoramic sunroof like our test vehicle, felt like a tourist’s submarine — the kind you get in the Bahamas to look at the fish who don’t really like you. The 500L’s interior is incredibly open — and if you’re having issues with the exterior design — makes the funky sheet metal totally worthwhile.

I’ll be the first to admit, the outside will take some getting used to. Despite Mini’s Countryman as the first “big” little car, the 500L’s bulbous design is a little jarring at first. If English fails you, try a little Italian: “uovo.” Pronounced like “eww-oh-vo” from your belly up, the word encapsulated for me just about everything about the 500L, which is to say it means “egg” in English.

That’s something that Fiat designers aren’t exactly shying away from. In Baltimore, Fiat designer Fabriccio De Baca said the 500L would be the “mamma car” for the Fiat brand. So there, I’m not completely full of it.

And neither is the 500L, to be honest. The family car wasn’t packed to the gills with a massive engine either. Fiat’s 1.4-liter Multi-Air four fits into the 500L and checks in around 160 horsepower. While that’s certainly enough to motivate the 500L around town, the engine isn’t exactly overpowering at altitude here. Most 500Ls will be mated to a six-speed automatic, a conventional option that helps the car achieve a 33 mpg rating on the highway. I really preferred the manual in the 500L, a six-speed manual that helped wring out every available horsepower from the motor. But I’m guessing the manual will sell only slightly better than diphtheria. Eradication of 17th century infectious diseases and manual transmissions is just around the corner, folks.

Fiat’s big selling point here with the 500L is its price. Quite frankly, the Countryman can reach astronomical prices and Volkswagen’s comparable model, the Tiguan, can too. For that, Fiat is starting the Pop version of the 500L at around $20,000 with incremental upgrades to cloth seating and amenities happening every $1,000 or so. Until December, the manufacturer will be offering navigation and backup camera (a $1,795 option, says Chrysler) for free in every 500L sold.

It’s a compelling value for money, especially considering how slowly the 500 caught on here. The 500L improves on that initial step by giving American buyers a bigger option that’s perhaps suited a little more toward our driving habits than the 500 was. But don’t take my word for it, just look at the 500L badge on the back. That’s the biggest name badge I’ve ever seen on a car.  

Aaron Cole is a syndicated auto columnist. He enjoys hearing from readers. Reach him at aaron.m.cole@gmail.com
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