2014 Fiat 500L

BALTIMORE — We've spent time with two Fiat 500 models on home turf over the past two years and our usual small crowd of "what are you driving now?" folks were enthralled by the two-door mini hatchback, never having seen one or ridden in one. Both times the 500 "won" over people whose previous knowledge of Fiat was limited to "they aren't very good cars, are they?"

One person was so taken by the 500 that she proclaimed she'd buy one if they were just a little bigger. "If it just had more room," she lamented.

Hey, girl, do we have something for you. Step right over and meet the all-new 2014 Fiat 500L wagon with four doors, stretch-out room for four adults, 23.1 cubic feet of storage behind the seats and 45 cubic feet of space with the seat folded. In other words, there's an abundant amount of passenger and hauling utility in this wagon.

It's 27 inches longer and six inches taller than the original 500 and its greenhouse is expansive — opt for the optional panoramic sunroof — providing a remarkable spacious and open interior environment. Before you pass judgment arguing that this is a 500 in name only, we discovered that the wagon retains the 500's fun-to-drive nature and at least some of its quirky, and rather endearing appearance.

We expected some body roll because of the car's tall driving position on roads and highways in and around Baltimore, but the 500L was relatively composed in the corners and gripped the road quite well. The ride proved smooth and quiet.

The wagon, which weighs about 840 pounds more than the standard version, is motivated by the same 1.4-liter turbocharged four found in the 500 Abarth performance coupe, making 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. And it takes all of those horses to motivate the car in acceptable manner. We had no problem with the performance thinking that the bigger engine is a good fit. It can be mated to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. Fiat officials say they plan to offer a standard automatic in the future, but we like the dual-clutch shifter, and that would be our transmission of choice.

Fiat has changed some things on its interior appointments and layout. For instance a body-colored dashboard is offered in the standard 500, but it comes only in Pop base trim on the 500L. The other trim levels get a two-tone padded dash, perhaps a bit more sophisticated.

The control layout is relatively simple and material quality is excellent. Fiat did not scrimp on storage space that includes two gloveboxes, big door pockets and a cubby under the center stack suitable for a phone.

Fiat has made all the current popular equipment standard across the lineup including full power accessories, air conditioning, remote keyless entry, cruise control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, UConncect with five-inch touchscreen and a six-speaker audio system with iPod connection.

For a limited time Fiat is offering a $1,700 Premier Package with rear-park assist, rearview camera, Uconnect with a 6.5-inch touchscreen and a navigation system at no charge.

The Fiat 500L comes in four trims — Pop, Easy, Trekking and Lounge — starting at $19,100. Trekking offers some unique features — a more rugged look for the campers, hikers and surfers among us — including an athletic two-tone interior environment, unique front and rear fascia designs, flared wheel arches, and larger 17-inch alloy wheels. It looks particularly fetching with its roof rack loaded with a bicycle and surf board.

Fiat needed to expand its 500 lineup in North America and the 500L wagon seems to be a perfect fit. It should appeal to a large segment of the population, especially those who love the little 500, but everyday life calls for more passenger and cargo space.

— Jim Meachen