By Frank A. Aukofer
Scripps Howard News Service
---- — Compared to its tiny sibling, the 500, Fiat’s all-new 500L looks like an exploded airbag.
It’s not an illusion. Though it bears a family resemblance to the 500, the four doors and a hatchback on the 500L surround an interior space of 120 cubic feet, right at the threshold of the EPA’s large car classification.
The 2014 full-size Chevrolet Impala has 124 cubic feet of interior space and an overall length of 16 feet 9 inches. The 500L stretches to 13 feet 11 inches.
In contrast, the interior volume of the baby 500 is 85 cubic feet and it’s two inches shy of 12 feet long, which means that the two-door runabout has barely enough space in the back seat to carry a couple of children.
The two vehicles do not share any parts except for the 500L’s engine, which is the same as on the Fiat Abarth, the high-performance version of the 500. It’s a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder that delivers 160 horsepower to the front wheels.
On the Abarth, the power gets there through a five-speed manual gearbox; on the 500L, there’s a choice of a six-speed manual or a six-speed twin clutch automatic. The latter combines two gearboxes controlled by a computer to shift automatically.
The 500L is marketed as a compact station wagon, European style, though its tall profile also qualifies it as a crossover. It delivers space for five passengers and actually has a reasonably comfortable center-rear seating position, a rarity in vehicles nowadays.
There’s enough headroom so old western movie stars like Gene Autry and Tom Mix wouldn’t have to doff their 10-gallon hats, plenty of space for the knobbiest knees, and there’s 21 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seatback, about as much as the trunk in a Lincoln Town Car. Folding the rear seatback adds another 45 cubic feet. The seatback is divided 60-40 for added utility.
Tested for this review was the base version, called the Pop, which has a sticker price of $19,900. Except that it comes with ugly 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, it is well equipped with cruise control, power windows and mirrors, remote locking, a trip computer, tire-pressure monitoring, front seat height adjustments, and a tilt-and telescoping steering wheel.
The upholstery is a comfortable cloth and the front seats provide good support for distance driving. Interior design is stylishly Italian in character although most of the surfaces are hard plastic.
There’s plenty of power from the turbo engine, even considering the 500L’s 3,203-pound curb weight. Clutch action is light and progressive, and the shift linkage is slick and a delight to manipulate. City/highway/combined fuel economy checks in at 25/33/28 mpg, slightly better than the twin clutch’s 24/33/27.
Upgrade to the Easy model at a price of $20,995 and you get attractive aluminum wheels, premium cloth upholstery, a center console with armrest and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. There’s also a Trekking model styled to look like an SUV, at $21,995 and, at the top of the line, the $24,995 Lounge version.
The Lounge comes standard with the twin clutch automatic transmission; on the Easy and Trekking models it’s a $1,350 option. The Pop comes only with a stick shift.
There also are options packages that deliver navigation, backup camera, satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, panoramic sunroof, upgraded audio system and rear parking assist.
But a 500L with everything doesn’t top $27,895, Fiat officials say.
On the road, the tested 500L Pop was unexpectedly comfortable and quiet, thanks to liberal use of sound deadening materials and acoustic glass.
Wind and mechanical sounds were mostly nonexistent, though some tire noise intruded depending on the road surface.
The suspension system, with performance Koni shock absorbers, is taut for good handling but delivers a choppy ride on rough surfaces. But the resilient seats cancel some of that.
The designers took care to install sun visors that slide on their support rods to block sunlight from the side, but they’re so small that, even fully extended, they don’t get the job done.
Unless you’re wedded to shiftless driving, you’d be delighted by the Pop’s manual transmission.
The six-speed twin-clutch automatic also is slick but Fiat also eventually will offer a conventional six-speed automatic for U.S. motorists unaccustomed to the dual clutch feel.
Fiat identifies the 500L’s main competitors as the Mini Cooper Countryman and the Kia Soul. As the Italians might say, it is “fortemente competitivo,” or strongly competitive.
Contact Frank Aukofer at email@example.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service at www.shns.com.
Specifications Model: 2014 Fiat 500L Pop four-door crossover utility vehicle. Engine: 1.4-liter four cylinder, turbocharged, 160 horsepower. Transmission: Six-speed manual. Overall length: 13 feet 11 inches. EPA passenger/cargo volume: 99/21 cubic feet. Weight: 3,203 pounds. EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 25/33/28 mpg. Base price, including destination charge: $19,900. Price as tested: $19,900.