You could think of the "L" in the Fiat 500L as standing for "larger" or "longer." Either would be correct when comparing the 2014 Fiat 500L to the Fiat 500.
While the “500” label is retained, the two vehicles share little beyond a nameplate and an engine. The 500L is 28 inches longer, six inches wider and six inches taller than the 500.
The Fiat 500L is surprisingly roomy, yet compact. It boasts 120 cubic feet of interior space, enough for the EPA to rank it a large car, though you would never guess by looking at the 167.3-inch long exterior. It’s shaped like a crossover utility vehicle with four doors for passengers and a liftgate at the rear for cargo.
Front-wheel drive is standard, along with a turbocharged, 1.4-liter engine and, depending on the trim level, the buyer’s choice of either a six-speed manual or a $1,350 six-speed Euro Twin Clutch automated manual transmission. Think of this as an automatic transmission.
Four versions are offered. The entry level Pop comes only with the manual gearbox. Upper level Easy and Trekking trim levels use the manual gearbox as the standard offering, but also allow buyers to opt for the automatic. The top-of-the-line Lounge comes only with the automatic.
For this review, Chrysler loaned my wife Paula and me a 500L Easy model, which was surprisingly well equipped considering its $21,000 starting price. Standard features include air conditioning, one-touch up/down power windows, an AM/FM Bluetooth enabled audio system, remote control power-door locks, cruise control and host of added comfort and convenience features. Options included a power sunroof, heated front seats and an audio upgrade.
Adding to the available equipment was a $1,745 Premier Package, which Fiat is offering at no charge for the 500L’s early buyers. It includes a navigation and upgraded audio system, rear parking sensors and a backup camera.
Driving the Fiat 500L is a good deal of fun. The manual transmission, which includes a hill-holder clutch, is easy and rewarding to use. The engine provides sufficient power, but requires higher engine speeds to extract maximum performance. Americans who like plenty of low-end torque will have to adjust and be willing to downshift if they select the easy shifting manual. Brief trials of the automatic at the 500L’s introductory program suggest that this transmission works well. Where some twin-clutch automated manuals are a little abrupt during gear changes at times, this one was not. For buyers who can’t quite accept a dual clutch automatic manual, Fiat is considering offering a conventional automatic gearbox down the road.
The ride is well controlled and firm. Handling is crisp yet relaxed. The 500L is pleasant, even rewarding to drive, but it is not the family-vehicle equivalent of a sports sedan, despite the inclusion of Koni shocks for a frequency selected damping system on North American 500L models. Nonetheless, folks who have considered the sportier Mini, but found it too small, the ride too harsh, the price too high, or any combination of these, might find the Fiat 500L a viable and attractive alternative.
They will certainly find the fuel economy to their liking. The owner’s manual says the 500L prefers 91 octane fuel, but also notes that 87 octane is acceptable. Using the 87 octane produced a zero-to-60 run of 8.8 seconds. With careful driving and a willingness to reach for a taller gear ratio as quickly as possible during gentle acceleration, the 500L went 35 miles per gallon in our mix of suburban and highway use.
In many ways, the Fiat 500L could be all the vehicle a growing family needs. Its trim exterior hides a surprisingly large and useful interior. Engine performance is perfectly acceptable, while the ride and handling should please just about anyone.
There were many things that I liked about the 2014 Fiat 500L. It’s surprisingly compact on the outside, yet really big inside. The cargo area was more than capable of handling enough groceries to last the average family a couple of weeks. The relatively low cargo floor also represents an easy lift and the tailgate was nicely balanced, making its manual operation easy.
The manual transmission and clutch are easy to use and the view ahead is quite good. The 500L has large triangular windows between the windshield and the front doors. Normally, these do little to aid my ability to see but because they are so large, they work well in the 500L. Also large is the panoramic sunroof. Normally, I can do without a sunroof, but this power operated unit with its sun screen, was very nice and reasonably priced at $950.
The front seat is comfortable for a shorter person, though my husband Jim grumbled that the bottom cushion was not long enough to be really comfortable for him. The driver’s seat is also height adjustable. It’s a manual seat, but everything works easily.
The back seats are really roomy for this class of vehicle. Fiat rates the back seat, which is split 60/40 and folds and tumbles for cargo, as suitable for three people when raised. I would say two is the practical limit, though there is a center seatbelt if the need for transporting five people arises.
The driver’s controls are easy to use and the audio/navigation system is particularly appealing for its intuitive operation. Chrysler seems to do the best here, and this Fiat uses the Chrysler Uconnect system. The backup camera is a must-have.
One hiccup was the navigation system. When you are exceeding the speed limit by 20 miles per hour the car warns you to slow down by verbally announcing the speed limit. Unfortunately, our car’s system had a glitch. It thought that a stretch of 65-mile-per-hour I-84 was a 45 mile-per-hour zone and it chastised us for going 65. Interestingly, the new GMC Sierra that we had recently did the same thing on the same stretch of highway, but it only flashed a warning on the instrument panel. One other complaint: The steering wheel blocked my view of the numbers on the speedometer between 40 and 70 miles per hour.
Still, I really liked the Fiat 500L. It’s easy and fun to drive, economical and surprisingly roomy.
ENGINE: 1.4-liter turbo four
TORQUE (lb/ft): 184
EPA Manual: 25/33
EPA Automatic: 24/33.
STARTS AT: $19,100
Jim MacPherson is the host of "The Car Doctor" show airing Sundays at noon on WTIC-AM. Paula MacPherson is his wife and new-car review partner. Send comments, questions, suggestions in care of Special Publications, Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115, or email email@example.com