For true believers, Fiat’s return to America – after an absence of almost 30 years – was akin to the Second Coming; every day is Easter, and pray daily to Carlo Abarth! Back in the day, Fiat’s lineup was no better or worse than any number of import compacts and subcompacts plying these (U.S.) waters, but inconsistent factory support matched to inconsistent dealer representation sent the Italian automaker packing in 1984. As fans of Charlie Sheen know, Fiat came back to the States with its celebrated 500. And its 2014 500L, sharing little more than a powertrain and numerals with the way-too-cute ‘Cinquecento’, is – for all intents and purposes – the importer’s Round Two.
We won’t keep you in suspense: Round Two won’t be won with a knockout. Unless, of course, Fiat plans to win with polarizing looks, a price point more closely matching Honda than Hyundai, and a car emanating from an area whose main claim to (automotive) fame is the Yugo. Entering a competitive environment with the combined artistry of Chrysler (Grand Cherokee, 300 and Viper, just to name three…) and Fiat (500 Abarth, Ferrari 458 and Maserati’s Quattroporte, just to name three…), you’d think Fiat’s sophomore entry in the U.S. might muster more charisma than Pontiac’s born-of-dysfuntion Aztek. But then, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
To its credit, in an era of Asian-generic and Euro-generic, there’s little about the 500L’s architecture than you’ll confuse with anyone else’s. And despite its nomenclature, you won’t even confuse it with Fiat’s own 500. Although ad copy might suggest the 500L is born of the tiny 500, that description falls well short of the truth. Better to suggest the 500L shares an oh-so-sweet drivetrain with Fiat’s way visceral Abarth, and leave it at that. The 500L platform is fully distinct from that of the 500; as a people-hauling MPV it kinda’ works, but has no more in common with the impish 500 than a speck of dirt has with a blackhead.
Worth noting is that I come to these subjective conclusions from a long-held respect for Italy’s practical people movers. While coveting Alfa’s GTV since its mid-sixties inception, what I could afford some ten years later was Alfa’s 2000 Berlina, which wrapped the GTV’s oh-so-visceral drivetrain in less-than-visceral bodywork. That, in addition to brief periods of ownership with two Fiat 128 sedans, established me – I think – at the vanguard of practical expediency couched in a very real affection for engineering.
The 500L’s lumpy proportions sitting atop a (relatively) tiny wheelset look good only from above; ‘above’ meaning an altitude in excess of 20,000 feet. To its credit, what works awkwardly during a walkaround works brilliantly once seated inside. There, a generous greenhouse means equally generous headroom, and that headroom allows almost chair-height seating in front and theater-like seating in back. And unlike competitive – after a fashion – CUVs, ingress/egress is as easy as, well, getting in and getting out; no need to step up to enter, nor to jump down to exit. We liked it, and our elderly mother (Chief Test Mom) liked it even more.
Should you have nothing in back other than stuff, you’ll enjoy over 22 cubic feet of space with the rear seat up, and some 68 cubic feet with the rear seat folded. The available space is even better than it sounds, with the 500L’s cubic volume made up of actual cubes. Throw in two bikes, or host a Bar Mitzvah; the 500L is arguably the most practical hatch coming out of Chrysler since its much-loved minivans made their debut thirty years ago.
So, the 500L can move things. How, then, does it move you? The Fiat’s drivetrain is inarguably its best feature. From just under 1,400cc’s of turbocharged four comes 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. And while those horses come in at a relatively high 5,500 rpm, the torque flatlines between 2,500 and 4,000 rpm. This is Fiat’s MultiAir technology, mated to either a six-speed manual or Twin Clutch transmission.
Our test vehicle provided the 6-speed, with an adequately precise linkage and reasonably progressive clutch. You won’t confuse it with the best from Honda, but the longish throws won’t leave you guessing as to which gear you’re in. With ratios spaced for efficiency, you’ll find third or fourth gear the best for around-town errands; 5th and 6th are better left to the Autostrada. At higher speeds in higher gears the revs are way relaxed, but then, so is acceleration – or lack thereof – without a couple of downshifts.
Despite a user-friendly interior and approachable – under $21K – price point, we were left wondering how it was the 500L (at least in its current form) ever made it to the States. Quirky can be good (ask the folks at Scion, Subaru and Mini), but the quirk quotient needs to be framed within a funky – and not fugly – context. The charitable would describe the 500L’s profile as that of a twice-baked potato, while the more derisive could easily conjure a less-polite descriptive. We could suggest several…if only our editor-in-chief would allow us to use them.
If you truly need a Fiat with four doors, buy Dodge’s Dart with the MultiAir four – and rent a minivan when Test Mom is in town. Fiat’s 500L needs to say ‘Ciao’. Now.