There's no doubt the all-new 2014 Fiat 500L will turn heads. The second model to debut since Fiat re-launched in North America, the five-seat 500L boasts stylish Euro design at an attainable price. And unlike the original Fiat 500 which some may dismiss as too tiny, the Fiat 500L boasts cavernous passenger and cargo space, while maintaining a compact footprint and signature Fiat looks.
Built on an all-new platform, the body of the 2014 Fiat 500L shares no common parts with the Fiat 500, yet the family resemblance is clear. Fiat designers say the L in the 500L stands for Loft, and the wagon's spacious, upright design was meant to mimic the high ceilings and artsy vibe found in urban live/work units. Square and rectangular shapes with rounded corners can be found everywhere, from the steering wheel to the taillights.
Compared with the original Fiat 500, the 500L is nearly two feet longer, six inches wider, and six inches taller. Aside from being bigger, the 500L is distinguishable from its smaller predecessor by its stretched-back, oval headlamp housings and its three-piece panoramic windshield. Four versions of the 2014 Fiat 500L are available: Pop, Easy, Trekking, and Lounge. Trekking models have a unique, toothy front grille, as well as different bumpers and side moldings, giving it a rugged look.
All models are powered by a 1.4-liter Multi-Air turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the same found in the sporty Fiat 500 Abarth. It makes 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Gearbox choices include a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed Euro twin-clutch transmission. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 25/33 mpg City/Highway with the manual and 24/33 mpg City/Highway with the twin-clutch gearbox. Fiat said a traditional 6-speed automatic transmission will be available.
Spaciousness inside the Fiat 500L is surprising. On the road, the wagon looks relatively compact. Yet inside, the feeling is open and airy, ideal for drivers who feel constricted in smaller wagons and crossovers. However, those who prefer a cabin that envelops its occupants may feel a bit lost in the interior of the 500L, as if they're sloshing around with room to spare.
Standard features on the Fiat 500L are pretty basic, but look for special deals on a package with navigation, rearview camera and rear park assist.
Cargo space is plentiful with 21.3 cubic feet with all seats in place, and much more with the rear seats folded down, making it the roomiest in its class. The rear seats do not automatically fold flush with the rear cargo area, but the cargo floor can be raised to make a completely flat surface.
On the road, the 2014 Fiat 500L offers ample power for everyday driving. The turbocharged engine provides enough oomph for lane changes and uphill climbs. Suspension is firm but not teeth-chattering, and the car stays composed around corners, unless pushed hard. Not everyone will like the feel of the Euro twin-clutch transmission, but it's a good alternative for those who don't want to row through the gears, especially since the point of engagement on the clutch pedal is unusually high on cars equipped with the manual gearbox.
Competitors to the Fiat 500L include other small wagons like the Mini Countryman, which offers its own unique styling and the cachet of the Mini brand, but at a higher price, and boxy, compact utility vehicles like the Kia Soul and Nissan Cube. For those willing to live with a few idiosyncrasies, the 2014 Fiat 500L is a good alternative for those who want space and practicality in a distinctive package.
There's no doubt the 500L is a Fiat. Although it shares no common parts with its tiny predecessor the Fiat 500, it shares a common design language that's cute, without being overly precious.
Fiat designers call the 500L the anti-SUV because of its very upright, cab-forward design, a stark contrast from many crossovers and SUVs that are going for sleeker shapes and dramatically sloping rooflines.
Built on an all-new small-wide platform, the body of the 2014 Fiat 500L has a relatively small footprint, despite it being more than two feet longer than the Fiat 500. The windshield is a unique three-piece design, giving it a panoramic look. Square and rectangular shapes with rounded corners can be found everywhere, from the steering wheel to the taillights.
The front fascia looks friendly and approachable. The Fiat badge sits in the center of a moustache-like line above the grille. Trekking models get a toothy grille and dark gray bumper, which give a more utilitarian look. On other trim levels, the grille is more of a gentle smile, with a color-keyed front bumper. Headlights in oval lenses are stretched back along the front fender. Separate round parking lamps sit below the headlamp housings. Tiny round foglights are integrated into the lower front bumper.
From the side, the 500L's upright stance is apparent. The roofline slopes gently, giving it a softer appearance than some of its boxy competitors, but not as dramatically as some of the newer, sleeker crossovers. Side moldings are prominent; they're dark gray on Trekking models and feature a chrome strip on Lounge models. Tiny round side markers mimic the bubbly shapes of the other lights. Base models get 16-inch wheels with plastic covers; our test car had sportier 16-inch aluminum wheels.
In the rear, the hatch is large and flat, accented by an integrated roof spoiler and raised, rounded tail lamps. Rear backup lights continue the square with rounded corner theme, and the tail pipe is small but wide, also with rounded corners. Trekking models get a dark gray license plate surround and a unique rear lower bumper.
It's surprisingly spacious inside the 2014 Fiat 500L. The feeling is open and airy, ideal for taller people and those who feel constricted in smaller wagons and crossovers. However, those who prefer a cabin that envelops its occupants may feel a bit lost in the 500L. The wide interior makes side armrests far away, out of reach for those of smaller stature. The top of the instrument panel is deep, presumably to accommodate the sloping windshield without cutting into cabin space. The rearview mirror, map lights and sunroof switches (on cars so equipped) are more than an arm's length away.
Front seats are comfortable; Fiat designer claim they were inspired by airplane seats (business class, we hope). Our test car, an Easy model, had cloth upholstery. On Trekking models, an upgraded, more rugged cloth interior is optional. Top-of-the line Lounge models get optional premium leather, but we weren't able to see an example of this.
Headroom up front is about on par with its competitors, at 40.7 inches, more than the 40 inches available on the Kia Soul, but short of the 42.6 inches offered in the Nissan Cube. The 500L's optional dual-pane sunroof eats up a tiny bit of headroom, providing a still-spacious 40.4 in front. On a side note, Fiat uses a translucent sunroof cover, which lets in light even when closed, and can create glare on the instrument panel.
The center controls are clean and simple. Three knobs for the climate control are large and easy to use. Chrysler's Uconnect handsfree system comes standard, which allows users to pair their phones via Bluetooth and control audio functions using a 5-inch touch screen or with voice recognition. Uconnect can also receive text messages and send pre-set, canned messages while driving.
Cars equipped with navigation get a 6.5-inch color touchscreen and Sirius satellite radio. We found the touchscreen interface easy to use, and we particularly like being able to switch between 2D and 3D views, as well as change map orientation, straight from the main map display. It's a refreshing change from most systems where you have to delve deep into a menu of options.
One feature we came to loathe during our test drive is an electronic voice that curtly tells you the current speed limit if you happen to go a little too fast. This electronic babysitter might be helpful to some, but we found her annoying.
Although it's generally well designed, the Fiat 500L cabin has a few peculiarities. Body-colored sheet metal is exposed along the seams of the doors, and because of this design, the interior door trim looks rather stuck-on. We could also see a small impression on each A-pillar, which are presumably exposed welds painted over. Also, the parking brake lever is huge, and looks like a control you'd find in an Airbus jet.
Doors and armrests of our test car were covered with a light gray fabric; they looked good new, but we imagine they'd get dirty quickly. The texture was also slightly rough to the touch. The fabric-like vinyl covering the instrument panel was also slightly textured, like the finest grit sandpaper. Base Pop models get a plastic instrument panel painted to match the exterior.
Storage space up front is minimal. Front door pockets are wide enough to hold an average-sized water bottle, but nothing bigger. The center armrest on our Easy test model was narrow, and only offered enough room for a mobile phone.
Audio quality is adequate on the base sound system, but, like others in this class, is nothing special. The upgraded Beats audio package with subwoofer sounds better, and the difference was most noticeable when listening to bass-thumping pop, house and hip hop. With the volume up loud, music sounded clear with very little distortion.
Rear legroom is plentiful in the Fiat 500L and measures 36.7 inches. It's less than the Kia Soul's 39 inches, but more than the Mini Countryman's 33.8 inches and the Nissan Cube's 35.5 inches. There's also plenty of headroom, measuring 38 inches with the sunroof and 38.7 inches without. That's shy of the Nissan Cube's 40.2 inches and the 2013 Kia Soul's 40 inches (Soul is being redesigned for 2014). The Mini Countryman gets 38 inches on all trim levels.
Rear seatbacks in the Fiat 500L are flat without much side support, making the back best for short trips. The middle seat is also very narrow, and the center console eats into foot space, so it's best left to small children.
Cargo space is best in this class, measuring a roomy 21.3 cubic feet with the rear seats in place. That blows away the Nissan Cube's 11.4 cubes, the Mini Countryman's 16.5 cubic feet and the Kia Soul's 19.3 cubes. Rear seats split 60/40 for more versatility, though they do not automatically fold flush with the rear cargo area; the cargo floor must be raised to make a completely flat surface. Smaller adults might find the rear hatch a little heavy to close, but a built-in handle on the inside makes it easier to manage.
Overall, we found the fit and finish of the Mini Countryman interior to be nicer, but we prefer the cabin of the Fiat to that of the Kia Soul. An extensive use of hard plastics gives the Kia a less-premium look, and the wide A-pillar and large side mirrors makes for a larger blind spot than the Fiat's open three-pane windshield design.
On the road, the 2014 Fiat 500L offers ample power for everyday driving. The 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine provides enough oomph for lane changes and uphill climbs. Acceleration is smooth and its 184 pound-feet of torque kept power on tap at relatively low rpms. The engine is quiet at city speeds, but gets noisy at higher rpms.
Our test car was equipped with the optional Euro twin-clutch transmission, which is the same optional gearbox on the Dodge Dart. We felt that shifts could have been quicker, but it's a good alternative for those who don't want to row through the gears, especially since the point of engagement on the clutch pedal is unusually high on models equipped with the 6-speed manual. A traditional 6-speed automatic will also be available.
Suspension is firm but not teeth-chattering. It uses a MacPherson strut setup in front, and a less-common twist beam suspension in rear (this segment typically uses a multi-link rear suspension). Koni frequency selective damping is borrowed from the Fiat 500 Abarth. The result is a ride that's firm, but not mind-numbingly harsh. On heavily rutted roads, the 500L stayed comfortable and relatively quiet.
The chassis of the Fiat 500L stays composed around corners, and while there is some body roll when pushed hard, the car stays pretty well planted. The power electric steering is comfortable, but isn't nearly as sporty as its Mini competitor. Four-wheel disc brakes work fine.
Noise inside the cabin is minimal, helped in part by acoustical material on the windshield and in the wheel wells. We did get some road noise, but wind noise was virtually nonexistent.
On a competitive drive in a Mini Countryman, the ride was extremely harsh. The road had to be as smooth as glass in order to feel comfortable. The steering was more direct and precise, however. Acceleration from the Countryman was sluggish, though this was with the base, non-turbo 1.6-liter engine that makes only 121 horsepower, compared with the Fiat's 160 hp. A better comparison would have been against the turbocharged Countryman S, although its sticker price starts at more than $5,000 above our 500L Easy test model.
A drive in the Kia Soul was softer and more comfortable over the bumps and ruts, but steering was numb compared to the Fiat. The Kia had better acceleration on tap compared to the Mini, but it also suffered from more body roll and felt wallowy around corners. In summary, we found the Fiat to be a good middle ground between the 2013 Kia Soul and the Mini Countryman in terms of sportiness and comfort.
The 2014 Fiat 500L is a good alternative for families who don't want to sacrifice looks for utility. While it has a few idiosyncrasies, the 500L offers head-turning design, solid driving dynamics and class-leading cargo space.
Laura Burstein filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after her test drive of the Fiat 500L in Baltimore, Maryland.