While sitting (cowering, really) outside the bathrooms at Baltimore-Washington International Airport during a tornado warning, I pondered my day driving the 2014 Fiat 500L.
Fiat chose the Maryland city to introduce its second U.S. model line because it is the initial port of entry for the 2014 500L once it arrives from the factory in Kragujevac, Serbia. Unlike U.S.-spec 500 hatchbacks and convertibles, which are assembled in Mexico, 500L models for both European and American consumption are built side-by-side and share almost nothing with the smaller Cinquecento, save the number 500 in their monikers and the 1.4-liter engine.
Not Just a Big 500
The design of the 500L was equally as inspired by the Cinquecento lineage as it was by the 600 Multipla and the early-2000's Multipla MPV. The Multipla debuted with strange, two-tier styling, a bulbous greenhouse, and lights mounted at the base of the A-pillars, although it eventually underwent a facelift that toned down the styling. The 2014 500L looks like it could be the follow up to the 1998-2010 Multipla. It has a similar short nose, long and raked windshield, and a large glass area. Like both of the Multiplas, there is an excellent use of interior space, despite a small exterior footprint. The 500L also manages to maintain the cute-yet-gawky aesthetic of its predecessors -- the Cinquecento design has hit its teenage years in the 500L, with braces (the front air inlet/grille), mass that looks a overgrown for its wheels (16-inchers are standard, with 17s the only larger option), and a few aspects that now seem out of proportion (the taillights look too small for the large rear end). It's not a bad look, but it's not button-cute like the 500.
Inside, the 500L bares no resemblance to the itty-bitty 500. The first thing that hits you is just how much space there is in the 500L and how much light pours in through all of the glass. To help create an airy cabin, Fiat's engineers widened the A- and D-pillars and added glass panels to help enhance visibility. Add a full-length glass sunroof (a $950 option on all but the base Pop model), and the cabin feels almost convertible-like, minus the wind-in-your-hair experience. Combine that with a seating position that's higher than most cars but lower than an SUV, and the 500L has great views in all directions.
The cabin's design, however, is on the staid side. There is a standard five-inch touchscreen (6.5 inches on upscale models) and three large rotary knobs for climate control. Everything is laid out well, easy to use, and fonts are large and clear. Fiat offers a number of different trims matched to the exterior color, and the seats are covered in premium-, durable-feeling fabric. The seats are also relatively comfortable, if on the flat side, and the door armrests are hard and undersized. Fabrizio Vacca, one of Fiat's senior interior designers from Centro Stile in Turin who worked on the 500L's interior, told me that the tiny armrests are due to European crash regulations, and that Fiat's design team is working on enlarging them for a later U.S.-spec model.
Behind the Wheel
Powering the 2014 Fiat 500L is the same 1.4-liter turbocharged I-4 found in the 500 Abarth and the Dodge Dart, rated here for 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. Three six-speed transmissions will be offered for the 500L: a manual is standard and a dual-clutch is a $1350 standalone option; a traditional six-speed automatic will be available for American customers at the start of 2014. The dual-clutch transmission, called Euro Twin Clutch, is a different unit than the dual dry-clutch transmission found in the Dart -- unfortunately however, it isn't much smoother or more responsive. We expect the traditional automatic, once it becomes available, to be the transmission of choice for most American buyers. The Euro Twin Clutch is rated at 24/33 mpg city/highway, while the manual is good for one more mpg in the city.
For us, the transmission of choice is the six-speed manual. Although the throws are long and the clutch is overly light, it's much more rewarding to drive than the DCT. Being able to row your own gears allows you to better utilize the 1.4's torque curve (peak torque is available from 2500 to 4000 rpm). The three-pedal setup adds a dose of fun to what is otherwise a fairly average driving experience and helps to add to the Italianitá of the Fiat mystique.
The 500L's ride is taut without being harsh or overly stiff, although this is no canyon carver by any means. Thanks to the combination of a 65.7-inch height, a 69.8-inch width, and smallish 16-inch wheels, there plenty of body roll in hard cornering and a lot of head toss over broken road surfaces. The same Koni frequency selective dampers from the front suspension of the 500 Abarth are utilized on all four corners here and help to smooth out the ride, despite the 102.8-inch wheelbase. The 500L uses a damper-strut front suspension and a torsion axle at the rear. Specially tuned bushings are specific to the North American market, as are larger 12.0-inch front and 10.4-inch rear brake discs, a tire pressure monitoring system, and all-season tires. The electric power steering is well weighted and doesn't feel over-boosted or artificial, although it's somewhat uncommunicative.
Fiat has priced the 2014 500L only a few thousand dollars over the smaller 500. The base 500L Pop starts at $19,900 with destination, and comes with 16-inch wheels, heated side-view mirrors, air conditioning, keyless entry, power locks and windows, Bluetooth, and more. The Pop is available only with the six-speed manual. The mid-grade 500L Easy adds aluminum wheels, tinted rear glass, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and a premium six-speaker audio system, and starts at $20,895 for the manual or $22,245 for the DCT. Topping the range is the 500L Lounge that comes only with the DCT and includes niceties such as foglamps, chrome trim, power-adjustable heated leather front seats with power driver's side lumbar, automatic dual-zone climate control, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. Pricing for the 500L Lounge starts at $24,995.
Designed specifically for the U.S. market (but also available in Europe) is the 500L Trekking. Slotting between the Easy and the Lounge, the Trekking has revised front and rear fascias with an SUV-inspired look including dark-grey plastic cladding, 17-inch aluminum wheels, a two-tone Nero/Marrone (black/brown) interior, and satin exterior trim. The Trekking can be had with either transmission: $22,995 for the manual and $24,345 for the dual-clutch.
Fiat is further sweetening the deal further for the car's first year of production. It will throw in the Premier Package -- rear parking sensors, a backup camera, and the 6.5-inch touchscreen with navigation -- free of charge on 500L Easy, Trekking, and Lounge models; the automaker says the package is worth about $1700 in content.
Back in Baltimore, the tornado warning eventually was called off. But should the arrival of the 500L raise an alarm for Mini with its Countryman? Well, the Fiat is a lot less expensive -- by nearly $3000. But it's offered with front-wheel drive only, while the Mini can be had with all-wheel drive. The Mini is also more rewarding to drive thanks to better handling and more direct steering. Where the Fiat 500L excels is being very usable in every day life without losing one iota of the brand's unique flair.