2014 Fiat 500L Lounge Road Test

The Fiat 500 becomes a PT Cruiser, only much, much better

What It Is
Fiat's first family mover since coming back to the U.S.
Best Thing
Functional, decent to drive, and it has a large, stylish interior.
Worst Thing
It's kinda ugly, and "Euro Twin Clutch Transmission" is a synonym for clunky.
Snap Judgment
If you're still wondering what to replace your PT Cruiser with, we have just the car for you.

When former coworker and overall fairly nice guy Jason Davis came back from his First Drive of the 2014 Fiat 500L, he said it was better than the Kia Soul or any other box car. He genuinely seemed to be enamored with the thing, ugly and awkward as it may be. Not to knock Mr. Davis too much, but he also daily drove some of the harshest-riding, loud sporty cars this side of a racecar. So I might've taken his opinion with a fairly large grain of rock salt.

Then, this box followed me home one day. Fine, it's a "scatola" if we're keeping things as Italian as possible. I drove it. I didn't look at the price tag. And after finally looking at how much our 2014 Fiat 500L cost, I thought to myself, "Wow, I was way off." But was I over or under on the asking price of this, the first foray of Fiat expanding into a real automaker again instead of just making pint-sized toy cars? Read on to find out.

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What We Drove

Okay, I'll admit it: I thought the 2014 Fiat 500L Lounge we had for the week was much more expensive than the $25,995 listed on the window sticker. I'm glad I was wrong, but the suede and leather interior put up a surprisingly good argument.

The Fiat 500L starts at $19,900, including $800 for destination and handling. In the realm of terrible trim level names, the base Pop model sounds like what we'd call a soft drink in the Midwest. Next up is the 500L Easy, which is perhaps such on everything but the eyes. In our opinion, the third one up the ladder, the 500L Trekking, is the best-looking model, with crossover-like cladding. And then we get up to the 500L Lounge that we had, which starts at $24,995. With a Beats audio system ($500) and painted 17-inch wheels being the only options, our car came to a surprisingly reasonable $25,995. I say that's reasonable because that's not too far from what my mom's PT Cruiser Limited cost in 2004; inflation may not be treating the country of Italy too well right now, but it hasn't really hit too many of its mainstream cars, apparently.

The 2014 Fiat 500L, unlike the regular 500, has four very large, upright doors, which makes it a cinch to load children into the car or hook up a child seat. We're actually quite smitten with the 500L's practicality. Neither the NHTSA nor the IIHS have crash-tested it yet.

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The Commute

Let's start with the bad: While rated at 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway/27 mpg combined, we drove a fairly extensive amount via highway and still just mustered 23.8 mpg over the course of a week. That's not too great, and it's partly because the tiny 160-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine has to work so hard to keep up the pace. This thing is shaped like a barn, er, "fienile," and doesn't cut through the air too smoothly.

Other complaints: The transmission is clunky and is programmed to hold on to higher gears at all costs for the sake of fuel economy, the rear headrests always impede visibility unless they're removed, the steering wheel cuts off part of your view of the gauges no matter how you angle it, and the ride can be a little wobbly on the highway. Otherwise, we're searching hard to find much more to complain about.

Discounting the rear headrests, outward visibility is excellent all around, and the 500L's interior is functional, intuitive, stylish, and an overall warm, inviting place to be. The Beats stereo also makes it a fun atmosphere to relax, as the booming sound emanating from the speakers does a good job of sharing sound from front to back. Not so much a complaint as a critique, the only thing that could possibly make the Fiat 500L's interior any better would be a slightly larger infotainment screen.

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The Grocery Run

Like the micro Fiat 500, the 500L is a pleasure to drive around town, feeling peppy and nimble with brakes befitting a European car. And, like the 500, it's easy as all get-up to park, with intuitive sight lines and tight steering. Shift the car in "D" from park, and it lurches like a manual-equipped car, which is due to the fact that it has a dual-clutch automatic transmission that behaves in much the same way as true stick shift.

It takes a little while to get used to it.

All of that aside, the 500L is plenty practical to use, with a 23.1 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the rear bench. That works out well when stacking boxes and bags, but it allowed just 10 of our grocery bags on the floor, which is on the low side for our cargo evaluations.

The Weekend Fun

This ain't the prettiest thing on the road; not once did we get someone yelling out a "Nice car!" or "The Italians are coming!" like we did with the 2013 Fiat 500 Abarth. This is a frumpy, bulbous family car that just so happens to be decently fun to drive. That's a rare feat among so many of the class competitors, even the Kia Soul and Scion xB.

Not one thing particularly stands out; it's a combination between the tight steering, strong brakes, refined interior with high-quality materials, and a layout that makes you feel like everything is within arm's reach. It's also fun details like the intuitive Uconnect infotainment system and the small pull-out mirror that lets parents check on their kids without having to turn around. This certainly isn't a minivan. It's too narrow and only seats five instead of six like the Mazda5. But you can tell that Fiat pulled a good bit of the expertise from Chrysler's minivan people and used it for the 500L. Then, they gave it a little more panache than what you'd get from your average people-hauler.

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At one point, Chrysler was selling upwards of 150,000 PT Cruisers a year in the U.S. By comparison, Kia has only ever been able to sell 115,000 Souls in its best year. Chrysler was stupid to let that product wilt over a 10-year life since at one point it practically owned the segment.

That said, the 2014 Fiat 500L is a step in the right direction and probably the best make-good the company could possibly had given the circumstances. It's a vehicle that honestly reminds me of the PT Cruiser—everything from the hard, supportive seats without a whole lot of thigh support to the upright vantage point over the road. But it's quieter, has a higher-class interior, and drives significantly better.

Will Fiat ever be able to make this car into the sales-leading "segment buster" that its brother from another mother was? Probably not, especially with what's expected to be a significantly upgraded all-new Kia Soul hitting dealerships next month. But we think that if the Fiat 500L can carve a niche for itself as a premium design on the cheap, it could win a lot of fans. If it doesn't, it won't be for lack of it being a smart product.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $25,995
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 24 mpg
EPA Highway: 33 mpg
EPA Combined: 27 mpg
Cargo Space: 10 grocery bags Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Good
Estimated Combined Range: 356.4 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Not rated

Notebook Quotes

"If Fiat ever decides to do a more mainstream version of this, like as a sedan or something, and maybe even sell it under a less Euro-trendy brand, they might be onto something. Like, maybe take the drivetrain and some of the Euro-trendiness--minus the weird--and make it a Dodge compact sedan. Heck, maybe they could even resurrect an old Dodge name to really connect with people and....oh, wait...." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director