Adding to the 500L’s appeal, even the base model offers considerable value.
Excluding the brand’s 2011 re-entry into the Canadian market, this past year has been one of the most iconic for Fiat. After having seen new products such as the spunky 500X crossover (reviewed here) and the upcoming 124 Spider, it has become pretty evident that Fiat is here to stay. However, these new models have taken the spotlight away from the brand’s oddball, so Fiat-Chrysler sent a loaded-up over to remind us about the fact that they have not forgotten about their little wagon. I spent the first week of spring with a 2016 Fiat 500L Trekking Urbana to see if it’s still relevant in the Canadian automotive space.
The 500L is a bit of an anomaly in the sense that it’s about the same size as the latest subcompact crossovers. It’s quite similar to the Mazda CX-3, the Honda HR-V, and most of all, the Mini Countryman. It’s also a bit raised and has all of the visual characteristics of a crossover, but Fiat has curiously chosen not to offer all-wheel-drive. This leaves it to compete with the likes of the Kia Soul, the Honda Fit and to some extent, compact hatches like the Volkswagen Golf.
Its overall stance works, and the 500L doesn’t look all that different from the Mini. The roofline is charming, and the low beltline makes for huge windows and excellent visibility all around. Overall, the styling is unmistakably that of the Fiat brand, and this car is very obviously the bigger brother of the charming little 500. That being said, it’s not nearly as cute as the 500; I found the styling to be a bit bland. It’s not particularly ugly, but the Trekking trim level’s added trim and flared wheel wells suggest that it’s a soft-roader, which it really isn’t. The point of this car is to be a playful city runabout with enough space for a small family or a weekend getaway.
On the inside, the 500L’s playful theme continues, with unique design and ergonomics that identify with the Fiat brand image. The instrument cluster is easy to read and offers a monochromatic screen displaying the trip computer. The main infotainment is a trimmed-down Fiat version of Chrysler’s Uconnect, and this is not a bad thing in the slightest. It works well and there were no complaints from my side. What I did find to be a bit annoying is the overall driving position – I couldn’t get a comfortable setting for the steering wheel, which is a bit squared off and takes away from the otherwise snazzy interior. Additionally, the emergency brake is in a hard-to-reach spot below the center armrest.
Fiat has mastered the art of space management here – even our tallest editors had no complaints in space within the 500L. The high roofline makes for ample headroom; I had two passengers throughout my test week that were over six feet tall. Both front and rear legroom was ample, and there was still plenty of space above their heads, even when factoring in the optional panoramic sunroof that our test vehicle was equipped with. This large sunroof and equally huge windows make the cabin of the 500L feel extremely airy and bright at any given time – this is one of the car’s strongest attributes.
As of this writing, there is no Abarth version of the 500L – it’s offered with a single engine choice. This is the 1.4L MultiAir turbocharged inline four-cylinder, also seen in Fiat-Chrysler family applications such as the Jeep Renegade (reviewed here). In the 500L, it pumps out 160 horsepower at 5,500RPM and 184 lb-ft of torque at 2,500RPM. The engine is pretty punchy and offers plenty of pep, though passing power comes a bit short at highway speeds. Overtaking slower vehicles requires some strategic planning. Throttle response is pretty good, and I prefer the 500L’s personality to the 500X with the nine-speed automatic – this car just feels more natural and organic. As previously mentioned, the 500L is front-drive only.
There are three transmissions offered on the 500L, though our car was equipped with the Aisin heavy-duty six-speed automatic, which would be my pick of the three. Canadian 500Ls can also be had with a six-speed dual-clutch (base model only) or six-speed manual. When it was first launched, the dual-clutch was the sole automatic option, but repeated complaints on its performance led FCA to introduce this new Aisin box as an option. It’s quite good, and offers crisp shifts in both automatic and manual shift modes. Much like other European applications such as the BMW lineup, it was a refreshing surprise to see that the manual shift mode operates the correct way (pull towards you for upshifts, push away for downshifts), but there are no paddle shifters here.
Ride quality of the 500L is decent, with Koni-branded shocks (North American models only) doing a swell job at damping. My test took place in the heart of pothole season, so I was able to rigorously test the Fiat’s suspension. I found it to be a softer ride than the last Mini Countryman I tested, though the Fiat has noticeably more body roll in the corners. Additionally, the steering is direct but a bit numb, and doesn’t quite offer as much feel as we would like to see – this is something the Countryman does very well, so those considering the 500L as a value choice won’t really be disappointed.
Fiat rates the 500L with the Aisin gearbox for 9.3L/100km in the city and up to 7.1L/100km on the highway. Our test actually took place in optimal conditions with a relatively light load on board, and with minimal use of the heat or air conditioning. Over the test week, I managed to squeeze an average of 8.4L/100km out of the car, which is right in line with the suggested numbers. Despite its turbocharged nature, the MultiAir gets away just fine with 87-octane regular fuel. The tank holds 50L of fuel, which makes for decent range before needing to find a gas station.
Adding to the little 500L’s appeal, the base model starts at just $21,995 and offers considerable value for your dollar spent. Our tester was the high-level Trekking Urbana trim level, which starts at $27,895, adding in an extra $1,595 for the Aisin automatic transmission. Other packages checked off include the Park-Sense park assist system with camera, the panoramic sunroof, Beats audio system, and a painted roof/matching mirror caps in “Rosso”. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the Beats stereo destroys anything else in the segment, including the optional Harman/Kardon system in the latest Mini lineup.
The 2016 Fiat 500L Trekking is in a bit of an awkward spot in today’s marketplace. It offers one of the best visibility cabins around, interesting styling, and some personality traits unique to the Fiat brand. At the same time, with newcomers to the segment such as the Honda HR-V (reviewed here) and Fiat’s own 500X, one can’t help but wonder if it’s still relevant. The 500L sells decently well to Canadians, especially with some fleet sales last year, so I expect it to stick around for the next couple years. It will definitely be interesting to see if FCA chooses to stick with it beyond the current model cycle or give it a full redesign.