2014 Fiat 500L Quick Spin Review: Introduction
Mulholland Highway offers panoramic vistas combined with challenging twists and turns, but it doesn’t come close to matching the road from Sorrento to Italy’s Amalfi Coast for sheer beauty, entertainment, and drama. While I certainly would have preferred to sample the new 2014 FIAT 500L in its home country, the Santa Monica Mountains between Malibu and Calabasas served well for a drive in the company’s new people carrier.
The new FIAT 500L exists for several reasons. First, it truly does seat five passengers in comfort. Second, it offers a level of daily practicality that the standard 500 models simply cannot match. And third, the 500L is not another special edition version of the existing FIAT 500, which gives dealers something truly new to sell while they wait, and wait, and wait for the return of Alfa Romeo to the U.S. market.
I’ve been curious about this car since its debut, so while attending a ride-and-drive event for the new 2014 Jeep Cherokee, I snagged the keys to the Fiat and went for a short ride that included mountain and highway driving.
2014 Fiat 500L Quick Spin Review: Features and Options
Fiat offers the 2014 500L in four different flavors that are whimsically called Pop, Easy, Trekking, and Lounge. Prices start at $19,900 for the 500L Pop.
Upgrade to the 500L Easy ($20,995), which is expected to be the most popular version of the car, and the standard equipment list adds premium cloth fabric for the seats, upgraded interior trim, a full front floor console with an armrest, and a rear seat center armrest with cupholders. The 500L Easy rides on 16-inch aluminum wheels.
Trekking ($21,995) trim is essentially a cosmetic upgrade designed to make the 500L look more like a crossover SUV, inside and out. It also gets fog lights and larger 17-inch aluminum wheels.
The Fiat 500L Lounge ($24,995) is loaded up with stuff compared to the Easy model, adding leather seats, heated front seats, satellite radio, chrome exterior trim, and a choice between three aluminum wheel designs.
All Easy, Trekking, and Lounge models are equipped with a free Premier Package during the first year of 500L production. It includes a larger 6.5-inch Uconnect touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth connectivity and music streaming, upgraded stereo speakers, and a media hub with a USB port, an SD card slot, and a 115-volt power outlet. This package also adds a reversing camera and rear parking assist sensors.
Additional upgrades for the 500L Easy, Trekking, and Lounge models, depending on the version selected, include a 6-speed automated manual gearbox that works like an automatic transmission, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, a panoramic sunroof, a premium Beats Audio sound system, and a variety of interior and exterior color combinations.
2014 Fiat 500L Quick Spin Review: Design and Materials
Funky doesn’t even begin to describe the 2014 Fiat 500L, a 5-door, 5-passenger vehicle that Fiat marketers would like to be able to call a crossover SUV while wearing a straight face, and they could if it A.) offered all-wheel drive as an option and B.) offered greater ground clearance. Instead, what we’ve got here is an expressively designed multi-purpose vehicle, not unlike a Ford C-Max, or a Kia Soul, or a Scion xB.
Love or hate the 500L’s look, there’s no denying that once you get inside you’re in for an unexpected experience. Outward visibility is nothing short of outstanding thanks to the split windshield pillar treatment and large blind-spot exterior mirrors. Equip the 500L with the optional panoramic sunroof, and you’ll get a sense of what it feels like to live inside of a fish bowl.
My 500L Easy test sample also displayed impressive quality in terms of interior materials, and thanks to Fiat’s variety of exterior colors, interior colors, and various trims, it is easy to tailor a 500L to personal preferences. My test vehicle had appealing silver trim accents, gloss black trim, and a two-tone appearance for the seats and door panels. In particular, I liked how Fiat lines many of the storage trays and bins with a rubber material to help quell vibration when items are placed there.
2014 Fiat 500L Quick Spin Review: Comfort and Controls
Based on my short drive, I would say that the 500L is a comfortable car for most people. Personally, I could not get the right mix of driver’s seat height and rear seat track travel, which forced me to either sit too close or too low for my preference. On a positive note, however, when driving on the freeway I found the 500L to be a big improvement over the standard 500 for no other reason than I didn’t feel like I had to hold my foot off of the accelerator while cruising as a steady rate of speed, which results in fatigue after about 15 minutes of driving.
Front and rear occupants sit on firm and supportive cushions, and the rear seat is positioned very high off of the floor for exceptional thigh support and a proper seating position. The 500L offers plenty of foot space under the front chairs, and the front seatbacks are softly padded, making them friendly to knees and shins should they come into contact with them. Funny enough, the front and rear seats could use greater bolstering, as it turns out the 500L is able to get around corners carrying a decent amount of speed.
The Fiat 500L’s available 6.5-inch Uconnect touchscreen infotainment system offers the same pleasing graphics and user functionality as in other Chrysler products. My test sample had the optional Beats Audio system, which sounded good for an affordable car, and the media hub is usefully equipped with an SD card slot and USB ports. Large round knobs control the climate system, making it easy to adjust temperature, fan speed, and more.
2014 Fiat 500L Quick Spin Review: Driving Impressions
If you’ve spent any amount of time driving a European car, and I’m talking about the kind of European car that Europeans actually purchase, not the Autobahn stormers that are popular in the States, you know that they are tuned to deliver a soft ride combined with nimble handling in order to please buyers who must negotiate cobblestone city streets, narrow country lanes, winding mountain roads, and impossible parking situations.
The Fiat 500L is a little bit different in that the suspension is firmer than expected, and that body roll is impressively controlled. This might translate to reduced ride compliance in places where the pavement is less than perfect, but for my quick spin on sunny Southern California highways, it made for a lively drive. Fun to toss around, the Fiat 500L handled twisty mountain roads and freeways with equal talent.
A turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine is standard, the same powerplant that’s installed in the smaller 500 Abarth performance model. Here, the engine’s 160 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque are charged with motivating an additional 700 pounds, and that’s before you fill the back seat and cargo area with people and stuff. It is paired with a 6-speed manual gearbox or a 6-speed automated manual transmission, the latter standard for the 500L Lounge.
Installed in the 500L, this engine provides spunky performance. My test vehicle had the automated manual transmission, and it worked better in the 500L than I recall from a week spent with a Dodge Dart that had this same powertrain combination. However, keep in mind that my time behind the wheel was short, so I did not subject the Fiat to a normal week’s worth of testing.
One thing I will say is that the manual shift pattern is backwards. To execute an upshift, the driver taps the shift lever back, or down. To downshift for passing, the driver must push the lever forward, or up. This counterintuitive design causes distraction and frustration.
Electric steering is standard for the 500L, operated using a thick-rimmed steering wheel and feeling light and easy to twirl but pleasingly consistent in terms of response and effort levels. I had no trouble with the 500L’s braking capabilities, and the pedal was easy to modulate during a speedy run down the side of a mountain. On the freeway, the 500L was a little bit loud, but that should be expected in a car of this size and price.
If there’s a disappointment to share, it’s that during my brief drive, the 500L averaged 20.4 mpg. That’s 3.6 mpg below the EPA’s city fuel economy rating, let alone the combined driving rating of 27 mpg. Plus, the 500L requires premium fuel. However, the terrain was mountainous and I exercised the car’s turbocharged engine, so I’m not about to ding the 500L for lousy fuel economy until after I’ve had a chance to spend a week with one, driving it as I normally would.
2014 Fiat 500L Quick Spin Review: Final Thoughts
As this quick spin review is written, the verdict is still out with regard to the 500L’s crash-test ratings, as neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has chimed in with reports about how this new, bigger Fiat protects occupants in a collision. Until either organization performs tests and releases results, I’m not about to say that Fiat has built a good family car.
Overall, though, the Fiat 500L is a surprisingly refined, practical, roomy, comfortable, and fun car. Cosmetically, it might not be everyone’s idea of appealing design, but neither are the 500L’s key competitors, and the Fiat has undeniable European flair.
The author attended a manufacturer-sponsored ride-and-drive event for the 2014 Fiat 500L