A bargain version of the Mini Countryman
The Fiat 500 is a car that has received quite a bit of praise here at Double Clutch, but when I first saw the 500L I became a little worried. Is it just a bastardized 500 sold on its quirky looks? The issue with any car that’s sold primarily on its looks and image is that once the novelty of driving a “cute” car wears off; the true colors of the car start to show up. My week with the 2014 Fiat 500L Lounge was all about figuring out for myself whether there was a real relevant car behind that smiling front fascia.
I didn’t have to wait long for a real test as the morning after picking up my bright red and white Fiat 500L, I woke up to the one of the worst ice storms on record in Toronto. I found the Fiat in my driveway under an inch of ice and had to decide whether to give the happy-looking little car a shot or default to my trusty winter driver. Feeling adventurous, I chipped off enough ice to get into the 500L and fired up the defrosters, heated seats and mirrors.
To my pleasant surprise, the little Fiat easily got the last-minute Christmas shopping in a city that looked like an eerie winter wonderland, crippled by power outages, downed trees and closed roads. Riding on a set of quality winter tires, the Fiat proved as sure footed as a mountain goat on the ice covered roads. Inside, the dual-zone climate control and heated seats kept me toasty. The heater motor, battling the extreme elements is obnoxiously loud inside the cabin, especially on full defrost, but it got the job done.
As the plows got out and the roads began to clear up a bit, I got the chance to loosen my white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel and take a little more notice of the Fiat’s driving dynamics. The 500L shares its rev-happy 1.4L turbo power plant with the famed 500 Abarth delivering 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. While that engine feels wild in the Abarth, it feels much tamer in the 500L. Maybe it’s the extra 385 kg, maybe it’s the fact that the 500L doesn’t have the Abarth’s raspy exhaust note, but it’s safe to say the Abarth magic hasn’t carried over to the 500L. That said, power delivery is smooth and low speed acceleration is brisk and more than adequate. Where the 1.4L falls short is in top end power which makes highway passing a chore rather than the joy that it can be. It’s not all bad though, the 6-speed twin-clutch transmission does an excellent job of staying out of mind and provides very quick shifts, giving the 500L a bit of a sporty edge over its main competitors.
Unfortunately though, that’s where the sporty driving experience ends; the steering feels disconnected from the road. The suspension is on the soft side so the 500L does experience quite a bit of body roll through fast bends and ramps. This is bad news for enthusiasts like me, but the positive here is that the softer suspension provides a very livable ride, even on rough city streets. Combine that with the fact that I found the noise levels in the interior to be significantly less than a typical compact, and the 500L proves that it does have some merit as a comfortable people mover. More impressively, despite the ice storm and busy Holiday traffic, I managed an average of 8.3L/100km and on the highway I saw numbers as low as 5.5L/100km.
Another advantage of the 500L that quickly becomes apparent once you get behind the wheel is the near perfect visibility. The $1200 optional panoramic roof in my tester, combined with the wrap-around front windscreen and tiny rear pillars make it feel like you’re driving around in a small greenhouse. The 500L has huge side mirrors, but they are split between regular and convex glass.
All that aside, the real reason anyone would consider the 500L over the standard 500 is the interior space. Adding an extra door and a full 68.6 cm in length has given rear passengers more than enough room. Up front it’s a different story though, while the funky looking two-tone grey seats in the lounge model prove very comfortable, the seating position itself needs some work. Try as I might, I simply could not find a driving position that I was comfortable in, the arm rests are nowhere near my arms, and no amount of adjusting the steering wheel will allow me to see the complete gauge cluster.
Aesthetically the interior is a nice place to be, the materials used look and feel upscale. The overall fit and finish inside the 500L Lounge is impressive. With an MSRP just north of $30k, my tester came fully decked out with everything available on the 500L, included the heated leather seats with power adjustable lumbar support. The “Beats” audio system lives up to its name and is certainly a box I would be checking if I were in the market for this car, and the 6.5” infotainment screen is easy to operate through a combination of clearly marked buttons and touchscreen functionality.
Generally, I’d say anything north of $30K for a compact people hauler is way too steep, but that’s not really the demographic this car is meant for. In doing battle with the ice and holiday rush, the 500L has proven that there is a real, practical car behind its quirky façade. For that reason I can see the 500L becoming very popular with the more affluent city dwelling young couples who generally look to the likes of the Mini Countryman or the Nissan Juke to express their quirky personalities. Priced significantly cheaper than a similarly equipped Mini Countryman, the 500L Lounge may earn its place in this growing premium city car market.
2014 Fiat 500L Lounge