The coaches at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles studied the Mini playbook and came up with a game plan that crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s—literally—for a return of the Fiat brand to America. To wit: Start with an iconic European brand that’s vaguely familiar to Americans and draw on the brand’s heritage to introduce a distinctive small car to the American market, and then expand it across theme and variations.
For Fiat, of course, it began with the classic modern Fiat 500 and quickly expanded to the convertible Fiat 500 Cabriolet, and the hotrod 500 Abarth. Then came the Fiat 500L—think of the “L” as standing for “Large”, followed by the Fiat 500X, the “X” indicating “crossover.” The plan has worked in fits and starts—Mini’s road hasn’t been without its bumps—but one of the disappointments for Fiat has been the 500L.
CarBuzzard’s first exposure to the 2014 Fiat 500L left our reviewer less than impressed, describing the 500L as Fiat’s version of Pontiac’s unlovely Aztec. Addressing this up front: The Fiat 500L still isn’t beautiful. It’s fair even to call it homely. But it also has a certain Old World charm, a shape that wants to throw three coins in a fountain and a face to park in forecourt of the quaint Italian farmhouse you saw on a HGTV house hunting show. And compared to the Fiat 600 Multipla, the original Fiat 500’s contemporary “multiple service” vehicle, the Fiat 500L is beautiful.
Simply put, the Fiat 500L looks like nothing else, with perhaps no almost direct equivalent other than the Mini Clubman. Indeed, both are more commodious variations of the standard Fiat 500 and standard Mini Cooper, neither of which has particularly adult-friendly back seats (and that’s an understatement of British proportions). However, the Mini Cooper Clubman’s back seat proved capable of transporting a six-foot-two adult male, head, legs and all, in relative comfort. The same individual fit in the Fiat 500L too, thanks to its high roof and the height of the seat off the floor, and he reported that the seat was more comfortable than the Mini’s as well.
The 500L is more than just a people mover, thanks to its ingenious cargo handling system. The 500L’s rear seat back folds forward to a quick shot of extra cargo room, and that’s where most hatchbacks would stop. But the 500L has a removable cargo floor that can be left in place for hidden sub-floor storage, or the floor can also be raised to make a shelf of sorts for two-tier loading. Or for really big items, the false floor can be removed and the rear seat tumbled forward against the backs of the front seats. Or with a 40/60 split, depending on cargo/passenger needs. It’s the most versatile small-car cargo/seating system this side of a Honda Fit.
At 68.0 cubic feet maximum, the Fiat 500L can not only carry a lot for its diminutive size, and it’s also the king of parking lot maneuverability. The 500L is about 70 inches wide—depending on model and about par for its class—but has a 32.3 foot turning circle. Honda Fit? It’s 35.1 feet. The Mini Clubman? Way up there at 37.1 feet. Hey, Fiat 500L driver, that parking spot is yours.
Unless there’s a regular Fiat 500 around, which has a 30.5 foot turning circle. You snooze, you lose.
The drivetrain is the same 1.4-liter turbocharged four as used in the Fiat 500 Abarth, with the same output is the same, 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque, neatly spread across a 2500-4000 rpm rev range., though mercifully with a lot quieter exhaust.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard equipment on the 500L except the top Lounge model, and a “Euro Twin Clutch” available on the base Pop trim level, but our test 2016 Fiat 500L Urbana Trekking came equipped with the optional Aisin six-speed automatic. The automatic has a $1,350 price tag and adds a fuel economy disadvantage as well. The 500L with a stick gets a 25/ 33/28 mpg city/highway/combined EPA rating, the automatic 22/30/25 mpg respectively.
Alas, the Aisin gave our test 2016 Fiat 500L a bipolar personality. With a medium pedal, acceleration was moderate. Push harder on the pedal to the right, however, and the 500L drops everything, including a couple of gears, and explodes into action. The 500L revs and roars and accelerates well enough to merge into fast moving traffic—thanks in part to its light-for-its-size curb weight—but it’s hardly elegant, particularly for what an Italian engine should be. It’s not bad. It just could be better.