The 2014 FIAT 500Longer
Fiat uses an alliteration of ‘L’ words to describe their latest subcompact, yet only one of those words really matter – longer. While the 500L is taller and wider than the standard 500, length is what puts the L in 500L.
To paraphrase our friend Geppetto, the toy car has become a real car.
After climbing into the seat of the 500L I expected to hear an echo when I closed the door. Sitting in the seat I felt alone and small, like Rudy on an empty football field.
The interior is astonishingly spacious and chockfull of natural light. It was like a scene from Willy Wonka – “Hey! The car is getting bigger! No it’s not, he’s getting smaller!”
The interior of the 500L is part actual space and part visual deception. The 500L is 65.7 inches tall and 167.1 inches long, which is 4 inches taller and 5.4 inches longer than the MINI Cooper Countryman. The 500L and the MINI are comparable in many interior volume categories, except one: front shoulder room. The 500L has 4.5 more inches in front shoulder room than the MINI and this extra room is what creates that strange is-this-car-for-giant-people feeling.
Fiat designers gave the 500L a headband of windows – 360-degrees of panoramic glass provides drivers with improved visibility and lets in copious amounts of sunshine, particularly when combined with the optional panoramic sunroof, or the Sky Dome, as Fiat calls it. The added light and visual access to the outdoors creates the perception of even roomier interior.
There are a few downsides to being surrounded by glass and light. The first being heat. Without tinted windows these cars would likely double as ovens in sunnier climates. Fiat addressed this by engineering a center air conditioning vent that sits atop the dash and forces air up into the 500L’s stratosphere rather than blowing it directly back into your passenger’s face. This was done to avoid “heat layers” from forming in the upper echelons of the cabin.
2014 Fiat 500L: Building a glass car
Safety is another challenge when designing a small car made of glass. Not safety in the physical sense, but rather the perception of safety.
Fiat designers explained that one of the biggest challenges of small cars is making them feel big inside while retaining a design that looks safe. They went on to say that many buyers are fearful of cars that don't have enough metal because buyers "see metal as an indicator of safety."
The 500L balances glass and metal very well. Not once did I feel like I was riding in a glass globe of demise. This might be a good time to mention the 500L’s standard seven airbags, to include knee and pelvic airbags.
One complaint of the original 500 was the seating position. It forced drivers to sit high, forward and with their chest hovering over the steering wheel. Thankfully Fiat gave the 500L a more traditional seating position, one that was designed for a passenger car and not the cab of a tractor-trailer.
The interior of the 500L is filled with good and bad examples of functional design.
The controls for the heated seats and powered lumbar support are located on a panel that extended from the left-hand side of the seat base and is parallel to the floor. The buttons were positioned and labeled in a way that made them easy to use and didn’t require you to strain to see what you were doing. This may seem like an insignificant observation, but for anyone who has searched for buttons on the side of a seat, it’s a refreshing change.
2014 Fiat 500L: The Interior
One interior shortcoming was the result of Americanizing the 500L.
The parking brake, which is tucked beneath the armrest, cannot be engaged or disengaged without first unlatching the armrest and moving it up and out of the way. The European version of the 500L isn’t equipped with an armrest. These were added exclusively for the American market. Apparently America has a strong need to lounge while motoring.
Another example, albeit rather trivial, is the opening in the dash adjacent to the USB inputs. The opening appears to have been designed for a phone, but is far too shallow. The first time I placed my phone in it and took off, it acted as a canon barrel, ejecting my phone onto the floor somewhere beneath my passenger’s seat. Had it been 1 or 2 inches deeper it would accommodate a mobile phone, an indisputable necessity for the American market.
Now that we’ve covered the furniture in our five-passenger studio, lets talk electronics. The 500L has two main center stack options: a 5-inch or 6.5-inch screen, both powered by Uconnect.
For the first year Fiat is offering the Premier Package (6.5-inch screen, rear parking sensors, back-up camera and navigation), a $1,700 value, at no cost to buyers. When asked if the “no charge” Premier Package was a way to introduce buyers to the pleasures of Uconnect a Fiat representative responded, “we don’t offer traditional incentives on Fiat.” Based on that response it would appear the no charge Premier Package is nothing more than an upscale launch incentive. In other words the 500L is launching with cash on the hood, but in a classier manner; still on the hood but packed in a Gucci bag.
After spending the day with Fiat’s Uconnect system I can describe it in two words - it works. At this point that’s really what most of us are looking for in a center screen system – it’s less about features and more about function.
Everything I asked Uconnect to do it did. No fuss, no freezing, no lag; it’s one of the best systems in the industry and hands down the best in this segment. The responsive screen, white-lettered hard buttons and intuitive voice commands make the system a real pleasure to use. Not once did I draw a fist and scream profane threats at the system.
Pairing my iPhone and Blackberry was quick and painless. The system was even quick to recognize my Zune (Yes, I have and use a Zune). The audio streaming via Bluetooth was virtually instant. Unlike other systems, I wasn’t forced to wait countless minutes for the system to index songs or download phonebooks.
Both cars I tested were equipped with the Beats by Dre sound upgrade. The hip-hop certified sound system brought plenty of bass into the cabin. During my assessment of the system, using Tupac’s classic hit California Love, the mid range seemed mildly distorted. I didn’t spend too much time adjusting the equalizer, but if you’re an audiophile of any sorts or plan on upgrading the sound in your 500L, pass on the Beats package.
2014 Fiat 500L: the Driver's View
The 500L weighs in at 3,254lbs when equipped with Fiat’s Euro Twin Clutch (dry dual-clutch transmission). That means the 500L weighs 700lbs more than the FIAT 500 Abarth.
That’s an important point to consider, because at the heart of the 500L is the same 1.4 liter turbo four-cylinder (160 HP/184 TQ), that powers the snarling little 500 Abarth. As fun as the 1.4 might be in the Abarth, imagine piloting one around a track with four refrigerators stacked on the roof.
In contrast the 2013 MINI Cooper Countryman, equipped with the 1.6-liter turbo, makes 7 less torque than the 500L, but also weighs 200lbs less.
The vertical heft and compliant spring rate in the 500L make it the opposite of sporty. Adequately adequate is the best way to describe the performance of the 500L.
The 500L can be had with an “Italian car enthusiast-desired six-speed manual” or Fiat’s Euro Twin Clutch (ETC). The ETC and manual will be joined by a standard automatic late this fall.
I did not desire the manual and I am an enthusiast. It could be that Italian enthusiasts have a different portrayal of enthusiast as it relates to shifting. If this were a true “enthusiast-inspired” manual its throws would be four inches apart, sound mechanical and have gates so small they inspire the occasional miss-shift.
That isn’t the case on the 500L. The shift knob on the manual was the size of a newborn baby’s head. It never felt secure in my medium-sized man hands. For drivers with smaller hands it’ll only worsen the have-I-been-shrunk feeling.
Variation in throttle caused the shifter to shutter forward and back slightly. For people who have a habit of leaving their hand on the shifter the constant feeling of powertrain reverberating through the globe-sized shifter will make the manual feel cheap. Then again, maybe this is a part of the “Italian enthusiast-inspired” manual experience.
2014 Fiat 500L: On the road
As with most cars today, clutch uptake was effortless and getting in and out of the gears was an uneventful process. I didn’t find torque as immediate in the 1.4 MultiAir as I’ve found with other applications of 4-cyclinder turbo engines. One upside to this is the car has absolutely zero torque steer.
The engine almost felt underpowered in the manual. We only had an hour together, the manual and I, but I never could get the engine and gears to play well together. This became even more apparent once I got behind the wheel of a car with a Euro Twin Clutch.
When asked how Fiat would market the ETC over the traditional automatic to buyers a Fiat spokesperson said “fuel economy gains and performance feel”. The base model trim, 500L Pop, will only be offered in a manual and will be a price leader model. Fiat will only sell a handful of Pops.
While the twin clutch doesn’t offer a sport mode or flappy paddles, it does offer a manual bump-in-gate solution. The ETC’s shifts were very mechanical and sharp. This resulted in a much smoother ride than the early blend of manual and I. The ETC dropped down gears quickly when you asked it to accelerate; yet it never felt like it was rushing into the next gear for the sake of fuel economy. Acceleration, like I stated earlier, was…adequate.
While the traditional automatic wasn’t available for testing, if the price difference between that and the ETC isn’t too drastically different, and a manual transmission isn’t a must, I would highly recommend the Euro Twin Clutch.
At highway speed there was very little road noise in the cabin, even with all the added glass. The car didn’t exactly feel heavy in normal driving, but it didn’t inspire spirited motoring either. A back-and-forth of the wheel and the ensuing slow side-to-side wallowing of the tall mini-wagon was a reminder you were not behind the wheel of a sports vehicle.
Visibility was, as expected, magnificent. The 500L is the complete opposite of the infamous claustrophobic Camaro.
The 500L is nose-heavy with a Front-to-Rear weight ratio of 61-39 and is sprung for ride compliance, not corner carving. These facts were obvious the first time I took a corner with a mildly assertive driving approach. I imagine a set of stiffer springs will be available from Mopar and will improve handling.
The ETC and manual both offer 33 miles per gallon on the highway, while the manual will net you one extra mile per gallon in the city, 24 vs. 25. The 500L’s fuel efficiency isn’t horrible, but it also won’t win any green awards either.
The Fiat 500L is very kid-friendly
Luckily Fiat buyers are more fashion conscious than fuel conscious. Fiat fully understands this. The brand plans to sell the 500L to design conscious adults with “changing lifestyles” who put price and fuel efficiency at the bottom of their list when it comes to buying a new car. Hopefully Fiat is right, because the 500L is bested in most categories by cars costing less.
One of life’s biggest “changing lifestyles” is becoming a parent, yet children were not mentioned once during Fiat’s presentation. This whole ‘kids aren’t cool’ attitude needs to be put to rest, quickly. I’m a father and my kid drives most of my buying decisions. Fiat should do their best to recognize this; after all they just built a car fully capable of parent duty.
To determine if the car would serve well as a mommy or daddy mobile, I brought a car seat to the event. I believe I was the only person wandering around carrying a large car seat. Next time I’m bringing the matching stroller so I have something to push the car seat in.
The Fiat engineers couldn’t have made installing car seats any easier.
First, the center buckle receiver sits in a recessed slot inside the seat and is held in place by an elastic band. There’s nothing more frustrating than fighting a fully erect seat belt receiver while installing a car seat.
Another great parenting feature on the 500L was the accessibility of the child seat anchors, which were visible to the naked eye. No need to smash your hand between the seats while fishing for the anchor latches. Parents everywhere rejoice.
Another great child-on-board feature, and yet another example of clever design, is the drop down backseat spy mirror located just above the rearview mirror. Anyone who has kids knows what a pain it is to adjust the rearview mirror to see your child in the back seat. This also can be dangerous since you can no longer see the cars behind you, which is important. Fiat designed a small wide-angle mirror that pulls down and gives the driver full view of the backseat without obscuring the rearview mirror.
2014 Fiat 500L: Conclusion
The 500L is the $600 designer shoe of the automotive world. It’s for people who make emotional purchases driven by visual excitement.
Functionality, longevity, and efficiency are rarely considerations when buying a glittery peep-toe pump with metallic leather trim. The same can be said of the 500L.
People who’ve always liked the 500 but found it too small, will purchase the 500L and will likely do so without ever comparing it to other cars. The design exclusivity of the Fiat brand and the packaging of the 500L will attract new buyers into the brand.
This car isn’t for everyone and it won’t sell in high volumes, just like those $600 glittery heels. And while people may laugh at the notion of $600 shoes, the truth is, as long as buyers want $600 shoes, designers will keep producing them.