Fiat's lineup of tiny cars has officially hit a growth spurt. Two years after the Italian brand reintroduced itself to American buyers with the Fiat 500 microcar, it has created a second model, the all-new 2014 Fiat 500L.
With its similar name and stylishly retro looks, the 500L has much in common with the 500, but this newest Fiat is entirely its own car. Here's your introduction.
The Bigger Fiat
The 500L is the more mature, older brother in Fiat's lineup. Where the 2-door Fiat 500 hatchback is tiny and most suitable for two passengers, the 4-door 500L is larger and more family friendly thanks to a 3-person rear seating area that can comfortably fit adults. Keep in mind that "large" is relative here. At more than 2 feet longer and half a foot wider and taller than the 500, the 500L looks brawny side-by-side. But the reality is the 500L is still a small car, just one that uses its interior space extremely well.
The Fiat 500L measures 167.3 inches in length, which makes it 5.5 inches longer than a Mini Cooper Countryman, but still about a foot shorter than a Honda Civic sedan. Inside is where the magic happens, with the 500L's particular trick being how much room it hides in such a small package. Behind its spacious rear seats, the 500L can swallow 21.3 cubic feet of luggage, vs. the 12.5 cubic feet available in the Civic's trunk. That outshines the Countryman's 16.5 cubic feet, but is still shy of the 23.7 cubic feet found in the Kia Soul, which benefits from its angular housing.
All in all, the 500L has over 120 cubic feet of interior volume, similar to that of a full-size sedan like the Ford Taurus. For buyers who love the 500's design but just can't work around its miniscule size and limited cargo capacity, the 500L is a welcome addition.
You could call the 2014 Fiat 500L a 4-door hatchback, compact wagon or just a 5-passenger carryall and be correct on all counts. Fiat dubs the 500L a "multipurpose vehicle." Equally nebulous are its competitors. In looks and proportions, the 500L most directly competes with the slightly smaller Mini Countryman. Other diminutive and funky haulers could include the Scion xB, Kia Soul, and Nissan's Cube and Juke.
Italy to America via Serbia
Fiat's cars are nothing if not international. Both the 500 and 500L boast Italian design, but the former is made in Mexico at Chrysler's Toluca assembly plant, while the 500L hails from Serbia.
A small and efficient engine powers the 500L. Unlike the Fiat 500 that is available in various power levels -- and even a new electric version -- all 2014 500L models use a turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine that makes 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. (Fiat fans may recognize this as the same powerplant that's in the sizzling Fiat 500 Abarth.)
This engine puts out more horsepower than the base powerplant in the Mini Cooper Countryman (121 hp), but less than a Cooper S Countryman (181 hp). The top-line John Cooper Works edition of the Countryman, meanwhile, boasts a potent 207 horsepower. The Kia Soul's most powerful engine rings in at a similar 164 horsepower, and the Juke's sole engine choice offers a commendable 188 hp.
The 500L debuted with two transmission choices: a 6-speed manual or 6-speed twin-clutch automated manual, which for all intents and purposes functions like an automatic. A third option will be a traditional 6-speed automatic, which can offer smoother shift transitions.
Unlike the Mini Countryman and Nissan Juke, the Fiat 500L is not available with all-wheel drive, meaning front-wheel drive is your only choice. Fuel efficiency is laudable. Estimated mpg ratings are 25 city/33 highway for models with the 6-speed manual and 24/33 for those with the twin-clutch transmission.
On the Road
The 500L drives surprisingly well. The 500L's larger size makes it feel much more civil on the freeway than the tiny 500, which can get nervous at higher speeds. Yet it's still small enough to be a hero around town, snagging small parking spots with ease.
The 2014 Fiat 500L is not nearly as dynamic as the Mini Countryman or Nissan Juke, which love twisty roads. On the flip side, the 500L doesn't penalize you every time it rolls over a speed bump or pothole. The 500L is just a softer, quieter and more comfortable vehicle. If that takes priority over squealing around corners and an overall fun-to-drive nature, the 500L is your car.
Like the Nissan Juke (and some variants of Mini Cooper models), the 500L employs a turbocharged engine, but again, the Fiat doesn't feel as spry. Even though the 500L has more torque than the Juke, we found the Fiat lacking in the lower rpm range.
On the bright side, its manual shifter is easy to use, and the 500L's automated manual did not feel clunky during our time with it. Again and again we were surprised with the 500L's levels of comfort, quiet and roominess. In these respects it outshines not only the Countryman and Juke, but also the Soul and Cube.
• Observation mirror: Is little Joey really poking Sally, or is she provoking him? With this discreet, foldaway mirror that sits above the rearview mirror, you can see exactly what's going on in the back seat.
• Rear-seat room/flexibility: In addition to offering plenty of legroom, the 500L's 60/40 split rear seats can slide, recline, and tumble forward to comfortably accommodate passengers or cargo.
• Cargo area: Speaking of cargo, in back is a 2-position cargo shelf, and the 500L also features a folding front seat that accommodates longer items such as surfboards, skis or wooden planks.
• Uconnect: The 500L is the first Fiat to use the excellent infotainment from Chrysler (of which Fiat is the majority owner). Uconnect allows easy control of everything from the radio to Bluetooth to navigation.
• Power front seats: Though common in larger vehicles, this feature is still not on the menu for many subcompacts, including the higher-priced Mini Cooper Countryman. Here it's standard on top versions of the 500L.
The 500L offers a lot for the money. A base Fiat 500L Pop starts at $19,900 and comes reasonably equipped with 16-inch chrome-accented wheels, cruise control, 5-inch touchscreen display, bi-halogen headlights and 6-speaker audio system. 500L Easy models include aluminum wheels, premium audio and leather shift knob for $20,995. Trekking models, which feature beefier front and rear aesthetics, larger wheels and a two-tone interior, start at $21,995. At the top of the lineup is the 500L Lounge, which comes with the automated manual transmission, heated leather front seats, and dual-zone climate control for $24,995.
For this first year, Fiat is offering a deal it hopes buyers can't refuse. All 2014 500L models except the base Pop get the $1,700 Premier Package at no added cost, which brings a navigation system, 6.5-inch touchscreen display, rear backup camera, and ParkSense rear-park assist.
A base Mini Countryman, by comparison, starts at $22,700, while the far less-spacious Nissan Juke starts at $19,780. The value leader in this segment, however, remains the Kia Soul with its starting price of just over $15,000.