NEW CAR REVIEW: 2014 Fiat 500L: Utilitarian, Italian flair

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The new 2014 Fiat 500L sedan is roomy and has some Italian flair, but isn’t much fun to drive. The new also sedan doesn’t have much in common with the lively but smaller two-door 500 models.

For instance, the $19,100-$24,195 500L four-door hatchback sedan is 27.7 inches longer and has approximately six inches more height and width than the two-door 500. Its grille looks as if pasted on to provide a family resemblance to other 500 models.

The front-wheel-drive 500L isn’t as cute as the smaller 500. It has a short nose you can’t see from the driver’s seat and a raked windshield. A large glass area allow good vision. It’s no head-turner, but has a clean Italian design.

The two-tone exterior of the 2014 Fiat 500L makes it look like a saddle shoe.
The two-tone exterior of the 2014 Fiat 500L makes it look like a saddle shoe. Images © James Raia/2013

Rivals include the Audi A3, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Mazda2, Mini Countryman and the offbeat Kia Soul and Scion xB. The 500L is more stylish than the Kia and Scion models and seems primarily aimed at the more expensive Countryman.

The 500L is made at a Fiat plant in Serbia. It generally feels solid, but I heard a few squeaks and rattles from my test car.

Power comes from the same 1.4-liter, turbocharged 160-horsepower four-cylinder with 180 pound-feet of torque found in the racy Abarth 500.

However, the 500L is considerably heavier than the smaller 500, and the extra weight causes performance to suffer. While lively in town, the 500L provides only moderate highway performance—and its engine is noisy when during 65-75 mph passing.

Estimated fuel economy is with its six-speed Euro Twin Clutch automatic transmission is 24 miles per gallon in the city and 33 on highways. It’s 25 and 33 mpgs with the standard six-speed manual transmission.

In keeping with Fiat 500 tradition, the 500L comes in four unconventionally named models: Pop, Easy, Trekking and Lounge. All are pretty well-equipped.

For instance, the $19,100 Pop’s items include air conditioning, power locks and windows, cruise control, tilt/telescopic wheel, 5-inch touchscreen display, six speakers, manually adjustable cloth seats, 60/40 split-fold rear seatbacks and 16-inch wheels.

Safety features include seven air bags.

The $20,195 Easy adds aluminum wheels, body color mirror caps, leather-wrapped wheel, unique cloth seat fabric and a six-speaker premium audio system.

The $21,195 Trekking adds “aggressively designed” front and rear fascias, fog lamps, body-side sill moldings and larger (17-inch) aluminum wheels with wider tires.

Finally, the $24,195 Lounge adds the Euro Twin Clutch transmission, chrome bodyside moldings and mirror caps, lower front and rear fascia accents, heated leather front seats and split-fold rear seatbacks with fore-aft adjustment that completely tumble forward. Also standard are automatic dual-zone climate control and sun visors with illuminated vanity mirrors.

Options include a power sunroof. During its first year of production, Fiat says a no-charge Premier Package will be included with Easy, Trekking and Lounge models. This package will include rear-park assist, rear backup camera and Uconnect 6.5 with a larger 6.5-inch touchscreen and navigation. Uconnect 6.5 has voice operation of navigation, AM/FM and hands-free calling, among other functions.

Italian cars generally are fun to drive, but the 500L isn’t much fun. Its steering is quick, but stiff and lifeless. The brake pedal, which controls anti-lock brakes, is soft and has a non-linear action—causing a driver to apply more brake pedal effort than initially seems necessary. Handling is average, but  electronic stability control enhances roadability.

The test 500L had the Euro Twin Clutch transmission. It was smooth during average acceleration, but caused the car to become a bit jerky in fully automatic mode during certain common acceleration conditions. However, this transmission has an easily used manual shift feature, using the shift lever on the console. (No shift paddles offered.)

I recommend the standard six-speed manual transmission, which gets a little more out of the small engine. A conventional torque-converter automatic is scheduled to be available in calendar 2014 and likely will become the most popular 500L transmission.

The 500L has an impressively large cabin with lots of glass area for good visibility. A high roof provides an airy interior, and four tall adults easily fit. Five fit if the rear-center occupant doesn’t mind sitting on the stiff backseat center area, which is best occupied by a small fold-down armrest.

A tall stance, large door handles and wide doorways make it easy to slide in and out of both front and rear of the generally quiet interior, which has lots of hard, but moderately attractive, plastic. All doors have storage pockets and there are two glove compartments—one small, the other fairly large.

Gauges are generally easy to read, although black speedometer/tachometer numbers on a silver background seem more stylish than practical. Controls can be worked efficiently, and the stiff front armrest with a covered storage bin can be folded up if a driver wants it out of the way. The parking brake on the front console looks dandy.

Front seats are supportive in curves, but rather flat. Some tall drivers may feel that the tilt steering wheel must be pushed all the way toward the dash to prevent them from feeling too close to the wheel.

The hatchback opens to reveal a low, wide cargo opening, and the hatch has a convenient interior pull-down handle. The hood raises easily on twin hydraulic struts.

The 500L is “no trip to Hollywood,” as the saying goes, but offers good room and versatility while providing a small footprint.

Pros: Roomy. Fairly fuel-thrifty. Compliant ride. Competitive pricing.

Cons: Occasionally jerky. Average highway performance. Noisy engine. Lifeless steering. Soft brake pedal.

Bottom Line: Practical sedan that lack sexy appeal of small 500 models.

Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.

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