Fiat 500L — Cute becomes practical

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We've spent time with two mini 2-door Fiat 500 models over the past two years and both times the 500 "won" us and others over; even those whose previous knowledge of Fiat was limited. We remember 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.

Today we invite her to 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 seats folded. In other words, there's an abundant amount of passenger and hauling utility in this Fiat.

But first you have to get past the styling, which, to put it as delicately as possible, is unusual in a rather convoluted sort of way. Fiat has taken the cute out of the Fiat 500 equation, creating something that looks like you feel after gorging on Christmas goodies for a couple of weeks. The Fiat 500 face is still there, but puffed up like it still has a mouthful of holiday treats.

However, before you pass final 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 Italian personality and appearance, especially inside the cabin.

This Fiat is 27 inches longer and six inches taller than the original 500 featuring an expansive greenhouse (opt for the optional panoramic sunroof) providing a remarkably spacious and open interior environment.

We expected some body roll because of the car's tall driving position on roads and highways, 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 powered 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. 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 have no qualms with the dual-clutch shifter. We also drove a six-speed manual and found it less than desirable. For one thing it was difficult to discern between first and third gear and we "dumped" it several times making our getaway from a stoplight.

Fiat says the 500L will hit 60 mpg in 9.1 seconds and that feels about right. Fuel economy is about what you expect from a small wagon at 24 city, 33 highway and 27 combined for the automatic. The manual yields slightly better at 25/33/28. Unbelievably premium gas is recommended.

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. Base prices rise from $19,900 including $800 destination charge for the Pop trim to $24,995 for the Lounge.

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, “Uconnect” with five-inch touchscreen and a six-speaker audio system with iPod connection. Some features added to the upper trims include dual-zone climate control, navigation, rearview camera, power front seats, and an upgraded 520-watt audio system.

It's the interior that may win over some buyers with its large doors, upright roof line that yields enormous head room, high-mounted seats that offer a great view of the road and allow passengers to slide in and out without drama. Once inside, the seats are wide and comfortable. A body-colored dashboard is offered only in Pop base trim on the 500L. The other trim levels get a bit more sophisticated two-tone padded dash. The control layout is relatively simple and material quality is excellent.

Fiat needs to expand its 500 lineup in North America to jump start sales and the 500L wagon would seem the perfect fit but the quirky looking 500L has gotten off to a slow start with less than 6,000 sold through November. That amounts to just a little over 1,000 a month since the wagon reached market this past summer.

Base price: $19,900; as driven, $19,900
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 160 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 184 foot-pounds @ 2,500 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 102.8 inches
Length: 167.1 inches
Curb weight: 3,203 pounds
Turning circle: 32.3 feet
Luggage capacity: 23.1 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 45 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 33 highway, 25 city
0-60: 9.1 seconds (manufacturer)
Also consider: Mini Cooper Countryman, Mazda5, Scion xB

The Good
• Italian personality
• Excellent visibility
• Generous cargo and passenger space

The Bad
• Unwieldy manual transmission

The Ugly
• Bloated exterior styling