What It Is
Small car, BIG interior, quality ride.
Smooth, dual-clutch transmission in a B-segment car?
Italy just outdid Korea; the 500L is a price and quality contender at every level.
When Fiat introduced the 2014 Fiat 500L to the North American audience in January at the Detroit Auto Show, I cringed. Then I laughed and smiled and grinned, and laughed again. Fiat's press conference was lighthearted, amusing, and self-deprecating. And of course, Catrinel Menghia. But back to the car: what the hell was it?
I wasn't expecting much from it last week in Baltimore, where Fiat hosted us for the 500L press launch. I thought it would be just another dopey contender in the basement of the so-called "B-segment," that being the smaller, inexpensive market. But I'm now eating those words: the 2014 Fiat 500L is not just a solid sub-compact, it is perhaps the most impressive in its segment.
That's not just a relative verdict. You can see for yourself, later this week or the next, as the 2014 Fiat 500L begins hitting showrooms across North America. What you'll find is a powerful, comfortable, economical, feature-stacked--and most importantly--a gratuitously spacious car that may throw the B-segment upside down.
Best of all? The 500L "Pop" begins at $19,900 including destination, and can be very well apportioned for just $20,995 ("Easy") and $21,995 ("Trekking"). Fancy a splurge? The 500L "Lounge" smokes the competition at just $24,995, and it maxes out with full options at $27,500.
WalkaroundNo matter how you slice it, the first taste is a little rough. The 2014 Fiat 500L is very Europe'y looking, and that's not familiar to many Americans. I mean, I hated my first beer, and now? I'm a craft brew snob. In this case, familiarity breeds acceptance at least, and I think that, in time, the 500L's aesthetic appearance will be a significant plus.
But there are also some really neat design touches that make the 500L a unique and interesting car to study. Take, for example, the glass A-to-D pillars. The A-pillar is the portion of the car's body that separates the front windshield from the driver and passenger door and windows, and the D-pillar--in this instance--is the portion of the car's body that separates the backseat doors and windows from the rear lift gate. What's unique in the 500L is that Fiat has drastically improved interior visibility by essentially cutting a vertical hole through them, and furnishing them with glass. Some models, too, have a stunning, panoramic glass moonroof, which does a fantastic job letting in lots of clean, natural light.
The front fascia is typical Fiat, featuring windswept buggy-like projector eyes, chrome grille, and military-regulation, lip-trimmed mustache, set above a low, wide grin. Step up to the handsomer "Trekking" model for rugged wheel arches, and sharper, larger wheels. Out back, there's a chrome muffler tip and a bumper lip set below the lift gate's cargo floor.
These details suggest not an expensive, premium offering, but a car that outclasses its class in details, regardless of your opinion of its styling cues.
Sitting DownHere is where the 2014 Fiat 500L blows you away. Let me preface this by saying that, according to one Fiat executive, "Fiat is never going to be entry level."
With that said, here is the best thing about the 500L, according to Fiat's product managers: "The 500L is a B-segment car with the interior volume of a Chrysler 300." Mull over that thought and consider: the post-partum 500 is now taller, wider, and longer on the outside, about average for the sub-compact class, but inside--and this may or may not be an indictment on America's expanding beltline--it's as big as an American large car.
Whether you're a snob for interior quality or not, Fiat has a 500L for you: if you want to row your own (shift manually) for less than $20,000, you can have a base 500L "Pop" with no soft surfaces on the inside; hard plastics at the knees and elbows and all that that entails. Lest you think Fiat was base, however, the 500L "Easy," "Trekking," and "Lounge" models receive substantially higher quality materials and fit and finish.
"Easy" receives various leather, vinyl, and cloth features to the steering wheel, shift knob, instrument panel, and center-console armrest, but it's the "Trekking" and "Lounge" trims that really impress. Here, the hard, shiny, body-colored plastics are replaced with leather soft touches--the seats, wheels, armrest, and all over the center stack and front dash. In fact, the touches are very Italian'y and stylistic, and give the impression of quality, given the B-segment price.
If, like me, you care more about stuff and how well it works than how it looks, you won't be disappointed. The 500L receives Chrysler's Uconnect with navigation, which is among the best infotainment systems in the industry, and the impressive Beats audio system. There's Bluetooth audio, a text-message reader, a backup camera, a rear park-assist program, automatic dual-zone climate controls, heated seats, and recline-and-tumble 60/40 rear seatbacks with fore/aft adjustment.
Sure, it's easy to get carried away on most stuff for the buck. The 500L offers features often seen in more expensive cars. Other bargain manufacturers are good at this, too. But unlike the plucky Koreans, this Cinquecento has the ride to back it up.
DrivingIn the recent past, this has been hit or miss for Fiat. We've previously concluded that the base 500 was not to our liking, but that the 500 Abarth was a substantial improvement. After our time in the 2014 500L, it's safe to say that it, too, is a completely different animal. And in a good way: Fiat says there is very little common architecture with the 500.
It's fair to mention at this point that we observed distinct driving differences between the 500L "Pop" and the rest of the lineup. The Pop is only offered with a six-speed manual transmission, and zero options. At $19,900, you're able to choose the body color and nothing else. Though the 1.4-liter, turbocharged engine (sourced from the 500 Abarth) provides plenty of motivation, the six-speed shifter isn't as willing. It has long, smooth, well-controlled throws, but it feels rubbery and a reflection of its price. It further lulls upon upshifting under accelerating to freeway speeds. Though the electrical power steering is light and easy, it didn't feel as solid or tightly controlled as in the higher models.
The brakes in all models were touchy to even slight contact, but they clamped well, and gave a competent impression.
Fiat whisked us around Baltimore's oldest pockmarked city streets, and upon highways with speeds of up to 65 miles per hour. In the "Easy" and "Lounge" models, we observed a remarkably quiet cabin. Some of this is, no doubt, due to Fiat's three-point pendulum powertrain mount isolation, and use of Koni frequency damping struts in the suspension assembly. Though this is also used on the Pop trim, it featured the heaviest use of thin, hard plastics, and some of that noise crept in. On the road, the 500L exhibited some slight body roll while turning at speed, but the ride was well controlled, and felt more like a Honda Accord than the cushioned, floaty Toyota Camry. This seemed intentional; Fiat is proud of its sport-enthused heritage.
We also spent time with Fiat's six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. There are no paddle shifters or gimmicky shift buttons, but if you want to shift manually, the shifter slides left, allowing the driver to push forward and backward for gear selection. In standard mode, the dual-clutch shifts are quick, relatively quiet, and much smoother than its price tag would suggest. Strangely enough, Fiat said that it would soon also be bringing a standard six-speed automatic transmission to America. We can't understand why--the dual clutch is fantastic.
SummaryThe 2014 Fiat 500L is the sum of its impressive features. And for the right price.
It's not difficult to imagine the 500L handily outselling it's smaller, older brother. Fiat believes so, too, saying in its information presentation that just two years ago, Fiat had less than 8-percent brand awareness in the United States. That number is now close to fifty percent. They didn't say by how much, or to what ratio it hopes to outsell the 500, but there's no doubt that the 500L is a serious effort on Fiat's part to succeed in America.
For comparison, Fiat had what it considered was the (all ugly club?) competition: a Nissan Cube, Kia Soul, Scion xB, and a Mini Countryman. The Nissan, Scion, and Kia aren't worth discussing. The Fiat is in a completely different league. The Mini is a worthy competitor in perception of quality and stuff, and it offers a solid, economical, and underpowered ride. Yes, for more money than an all-boxes-checked 500L "Lounge," you can get a Mini Countryman S with more power. But when you compare the 500L standard powertrain and price to the equally equipped Mini, the choice is clear: why would you pay more than $30,000 for a B-segment car?
The 2014 Fiat 500L is powerful, economical, incredibly spacious, well apportioned, civil, and offers a more premium ride than its price suggests. It's hard to believe; it's even harder to write this. In fact, it's amazing that even the Dodge Dart isn't this good.
For our money, we'd walk out the studio door with the best-looking 500L--the "Trekking"--and take advantage of Fiat's next 12-months only Premier Package incentive, a $1700 value which includes a free upgrade to the 6.5-inch Uconnect navigation screen, a back-up camera, and rear-park assist. The Trekking already receives the premium interior, 17-inch wheels, tinted glass, premium audio, and larger color selection.
For $21,995, including destination.
The only question remaining is whether or not you can get beyond its looks.