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2014 Fiat 500L car reviews: Pop Manual and Sport DDCT

by David Zatz in July 2014(4)

The Fiat 500L uses the same styling as the Fiat 500, but it's based on a completely different car, and uses the same engine as the 500 Abarth (and Dodge Dart). The suspension has been tuned to feel like the 500, as much as a much heavier car can.

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For under $20,000, the 500L seems to be a great deal - an attractive car that can easily swallow up four people and their luggage, return decent fuel mileage, and provide a strong fun factor thanks to excellent cornering. But while there are some cars that you like more and more as you drive them, there are others that annoy more and more, and it's hard to know where to put the 500L. I put it into both categories. First I loved it, then it annoyed me, then I loved it again as I mastered the art of overcoming turbo lag (usually), figured out the telematics, and just generally got used to it.

The Fiat 500L's ability to easily take sharp corners, without a punishing or harsh ride, truly stands out. It feels more like a BMW 116 than a minivan or small crossover, yet it has that crossover form factor with good legroom and cargo space. The Fiat makes it fun to whip around 90 degree corners at speeds most cars can only dream of, as the stick-shift option brings the driver closer to the road, eliminating the "slush" of a conventional automatic. (500L has no conventional automatic option - there's a dual-clutch automatic which is more efficient but feels a little different.)

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We took hairpin turns at decent rates of speed, and the tires gripped perfectly; the car felt firmly planted, with little sense of weight or imbalance. While the 500L doesn't fully have the fun-bouncy feel of the 500 itself, it maintains the steering precision and competence of its smaller cousin.

The ride was rather small-car, with good filtering raised strips of pavement, potholes, and other imperfections; but the ride was still busy, with what some may call "an excess of road feel" and others a sporty connectedness to the road. Bumps came through as low-bass noise, particularly when going over concrete. There was no mistaking the 500L for a minivan.

Wind noise was relatively light at highway speeds, with good acoustic insulation from the outside world; road noise was also light, other than the vibration of bumps being converted partly to low-frequency noise.

Power and acceleration

The turbocharged 1.4 liter gasoline engine - its only powerplant in the US - reacts about as one would expect, namely, slowly at first, then whipping off as the turbocharger spins up. Quick starts from a stop takes more gas than many drivers are used to, but they are possible; there's still some turbo lag unless you really let it rev from the start. Essentially, from launch, you go slowly to around 2,300 rpm, then the turbo really winds up and you shoot away (in old Consumer Reports lingo, it "sags, then surges.")

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The 2,300 rpm guestimate, based on trial and error, is for lower gears and lower speeds. If you want to drive for speed or sport, fuel efficiency around town has to fall, to keep the car in a low enough gear for any responsiveness. On the highway, sixth gear only becomes practical at 65 mph, and the "takeoff" speed bumps up to over 3,000 rpm. The little Fiat seems to prefer being a little over 2,000 rpm on the highway. The good news is that it does accelerate fairly quickly, though not instantly, and hills seem to be no issue. The engine has a good torque range and air conditioning doesn't slow it down much once it's moving.

The manual transmission shifter is easy to use, with all the gears nicely spaced out and easy to find consistently, and no sensitive spots; Reverse is as easy as any other gear, with a pull-up collar and a wide birth from First. Going between fourth, fifth, and sixth gears was unusually easy. The clutch is likewise easy to master, with a long transition period placed about where you'd expect it. The three pedals are nicely spaced.

Driving the 500L made me wish for a diesel, though - the low-end grunt would have been very handy. I could not help but make comparisons to the 1.6 liter diesel BMW I'd been driving two weeks before; the 500L sure takes off when the turbo kicks in, but a diesel would be more predictable and easier to launch smoothly. I would trade a little sprint time for some instant responsiveness.

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The optional dual-clutch (as used in the Dodge Dart) does a fine job of choosing gears, and reacts quickly to changing inputs. Once moving, the 500L is responsive, given a time delay of 2-3 seconds; if you're moving any speed from 15-70, and you hit the gas pedal 1/3 of the way or more, there will be a delay as the transmission downshifts and the turbo spools up. Then you get a rapidly increasing power boost. It isn't the instant-on reaction of an SRT, but it does what it needs to do. In sprints, once you get past 12 mph or so, the 500L is quick, but that first 12 mph is a killer. Moving from a dead stop is a problem, especially with the automatic, but once the engine is at a decent speed, it reacts quickly.

Braking is fast and precise and easy to do smoothly.

Inside the Fiat 500L

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The interior is bright and attractive, with an open-air feeling not unlike being in the front seat of a bus (in a good way); the wraparound-effect windshield sees to that. The effect is striking from the inside. The dual pillars don't interfere much with visibility. Extra-large side windows which start lower than usual and go up higher than usual also contribute to the airy feel, and rear visibility is good, too, with an effective rear wiper/washer. The heated outside mirrors have both standard and "spotter" sections to make sure you don't miss anything.

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Rear seats are more comfortable than front seats, but both are comfortable enough and well-bolstered - and they can be moved forward a few inches and then reclined, if wanted. There is room for four large people in the car, sitting without difficulty - and for their luggage. Interior space is surprisingly good for such a small car. There are also many little cubbies and storage bins, lined with removable rubber inserts; and dual (small) glove compartments accompanied by a typical small-car ledge. If you can't find a place for all your car junk, you have too much junk.

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The storage area is fairly large; but rather than using a compact spare, Fiat, by default, provides a "tire service kit." You can buy a compact spare, but it's expensive. The rear seats easily and independently fold forward; in theory, they can then tumble, but we could never get them to do it.

Fiat will not win any friend with the "beep until you fasten your seat belt" setup, but at least the 500L lets you lower the volume of the beep (it provides a different chirp if you actually start moving without a seat belt on). The belts are more convenient than in the 500.

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The gray-on-black gauges make them hard to read at times, particularly on bright days while wearing sunglasses, when the small, light numbers are washed out; turning on the headlights helps, but then you're another jerk driving around with their headlights on (there's no control for turning on just the parking lights). Contributing to the problem are a speedometer needle which completely covers over the numbers, and the absurd 160 mph scale, which forces the speeds one actually uses to a small part of the speedometer. How often will a 500L driver pass 80 mph? Why devote half the space to speeds above 80? What is the top speed of a 500L, anyway? 120 mph? 200 kp/h? Of course, the tachometer exceeds the sole engine's redline by 1,000 rpm, too.

The crazy-high scale would make sense if the speedometer had mph and km/h on the same scale, but it illuminates a separate scale for kph, which goes up to a nutty 250 km/h. (The image has more contrast than the car itself; the backgrounds are much more gray than white.)

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One may ask how Fiat managed to pack so much value into such a small package: a fairly efficient engine, lots of space, terrific cornering, acceptable ride, lots of standard features. One answer is, they jettisoned some things we normally take for granted (like a spare tire), the most obvious being the locks. Normally, you get a visual indication of the locks' status, and more than one button to lock and unlock; not on the 500L, where there is a single lock/unlock button on the dashboard and no way of telling which one you've just done. There's a lock and unlock button on the fob, but once inside, you get one button for everything, and no manual locks/unlocks.

Unlike many inexpensive cars, you do get a gauge cluster right in front of the driver, with real-life analog gauges for the usual functions, including a tachometer. Are you watching this, Toyota? You also get height adjustable front seats - both of them! - and flip and fold rear seats for better storage. The 500L doesn't usually cut costs where it matters.

Stereo and such

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Our test car had USB and auxiliary input connectivity, and the stereo system had a setting for adjusting the auxiliary input volume (either USB or cable). We tried out a USB thumb drive, and while it took a long time for the system to build an index (much longer than in our Chrysler tests), eventually it sorted through all 32 GB and provided navigation by artist, genre, song, album, or - key for those using USB drives - by folder.

The stereo's sound was good and clear, albeit without much bass response - perfect for voice and good for complex music played at reasonable volumes. It was far better than the Fiat 500s we drove last year. (Warning: the Pop has unique speakers. All other 500Ls have "premium" speakers.)

There are audio controls on the back of the steering wheel for volume, tuning/song changing, and mode changing (e.g. AM, FM, USB). There are also two physical knobs for volume and tuning/song changing. The center screen is also a touchpad, though five physical buttons are used to set the mode (radio, compass, etc.)

The three-band equalizer and balance were easy enough to use, but getting to them was hard. There is a mechanical button that could be put to this use (push once for bass, etc), as in the olden times of the 1990s, but it isn't. One has to negotiate the touch screen.

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The trip computer is graphically pleasing and helpful, showing average speed and fuel economy, with two trip settings; however, every time you change anything else at all, to get back, you must use the button to press More, then the small touch-screen Trip Computer, and then Trip A, no small feat while driving. You can't do things like change the station and then press More, or wait a while, for it to change back automatically. There's a setting to show or not show Trip B status in the gauge cluster, but the cluster display was the same no matter what we set.

To keep you fuel-conscious, the system also includes an economy tracker which looks at your acceleration, speed, and such, named "Eco:Drive." You can either look at the current or last trip on the system, or download details to a USB thumb drive - the latter being a nice touch for those who want to do long-term tracking.

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The compass is a nice feature, though it should be on all the time, in the gauge cluster rather than the center. That small amber display contains various warnings (e.g. door open) when needed, and otherwise shows instant fuel economy (not a particularly useful number, especially when displayed as digits rather than as a graph), with outside temperature, time, and odometer. Giving the compass its very own hard button makes sense, but not as much sense as just putting it into one of the normally blank areas of the gauge-cluster display, and providing a hard button for the trip computer instead of making it one of four options under "MORE."

Despite the snazzy graphics, the compass doesn't give you fine differentiations; there's nothing between, say, East and Northeast. That's not a major problem; hey, the BMW 116d SE doesn't even give you East vs West.

Auto part

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There are two places to change the car's settings. The first is in the little gauge-cluster trip computer display, shown above, which normally shows the time, odometer, outside temperature, and current gas mileage. That's the only rheostat (another little cost savings), but it also lets you turn on a buzzer to alert you if you are driving too quickly - always a nice way to avoid a ticket.

More settings are available on the five-inch (6.5 inch if you go that way) touch-screen stereo, including locking behavior, use of daytime running lights, and such. There doesn't seem to be a good reason to split up the settings, but the 500L is sold in a lot of countries, and in some of them, one or another of the displays may be optional rather than standard. (That may also explain the 7,000 rpm tachometer, though that choice was more likely dictated by fashion. We doubt there's any 500L configuration that requires a 160 mph speedometer.)

Summing up / value

Despite being much smaller on the outside than a Dart, it is similar in weight and in interior space; the hatch space is more flexible than the Dart's trunk, and seemed similar in size and configuration to that of the PT Cruiser.

The 500L is a thoroughly economical package; while there are some "tells" of how they got the price so low, places where the trim favors lower cost, for the most part it delivers a pretty premium experience. One gets used to dealing with the little turbo engine, (though a diesel would be nice for the responsiveness and higher efficiency, despite losing a little in sprints), especially when the cornering ability compensates for sudden power surges in the middle of turns. Keeping it revved a bit higher than in a traditional car becomes part of the routine, and the 500L still delivers better mileage than most other vehicles with this much usable space.

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Speaking of economical - the base model, the Fiat 500L Pop, costs US$19,995 including destination charges. That may not sound impressive until you consider that our test car was a base 500L Pop with no options. It includes air conditioning, heated power mirrors, rear window washer/ wiper/defroster, power windows and locks with remote and alarm, two height-adjustable front seats, rear 60/40 folding seats with tilt, tumble, and slide, body-color dashboard panels, tilt/telescope steering column, touch-screen stereo and trip computer, six-speaker stereo with USB thumb-drive or iPod input, day/night mirror, tinted windows, cruise, seven airbags (including side curtains), hill start assist, and even floor mats, the long-overpriced additive to many an inexpensive car.

If you want to spend more, Fiat makes it easy. There are four 500L models, the most attractive probably being Easy ($1,200 more than Pop), which includes all the Pop features, a center armrest, minor trim upgrades, "premium" speakers, aluminum wheels. With this model, various overpriced option packages also become available. The Trekking model, at another $1,200, is mostly an appearance packages, with fog lamps and unique bigger wheels and lower-profile tires for pointlessly better cornering at the cost of ride. Finally, Lounge (another $2,800) adds lumbar adjustments, heated leather front seats,
an AC outlet, auto-dimming rearview mirror, various trim and cosmetic differences, rear armrest/cupholder, illuminated vanity mirrors, and satellite radio.

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The main reason to upgrade to Easy is to get access to option packages - only black-and-red seats are available on Pop (as a no-cost option). Easy adds five option collections, going from $1,300 to $4,000 - and if you want heated front seats, it's the $4,000 option. The base package seems sensible: rear armrest, dual-zone auto temperature control, lumbar adjustment, auto-dimming mirror, satellite radio, rear camera and rear parking assist. $450 more buys you a compact spare tire, too. For $2,200 you get all of this except the compact spare, along with an "accent roof" and mirror caps, and matte-black wheels. $3,200 buys the base package, plus 6.5 inch touch-screen and power sunroof.

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The 500L has EPA ratings of 25 mpg city, 33 highway, with the manual transmission; there are no major US/Canadian parts in the car, which is made in Serbia, with 21% of its parts being Serbian and 19% being Italian. The engine and transmission are both made in Italy. If you wanted a truly foreign car, this fills the bill - other than Chrysler handling local distribution.

The Pop and Easy price is low for what you get, but there haven't been many takers. Perhaps Fiat's reputation from the 1970s is keeping them away, (the world has changed just a little since then), or perhaps people aren't looking for cars in this form factor right now, or maybe people just don't know what it is yet. Fiat still isn't really getting much respect or attention, in comparison with BMW's Mini series. For those with families or car-pools, though, the 500L is a fine compromise between a fun small car and a minivan, though.

Another view

by Dom Pike in June 2013

The Fiat 500L is based on the Fiat Punto, not the 500, but it has styling from the popular Fiat subcompact. Space utilization is about as high as it gets, with a surprisingly spacious interior despite the tiny exterior; in that regard, it takes the place of the larger PT Cruiser.

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The 1.4 liter engine is set up better than it is in the Dart. The engine is more responsive, and feels strong; performance is good in everyday driving. There is not much lag under normal conditions; when you pound it, you can tell when the engine is at its best revs.

The dual clutch is a loveable transmission; shifts are firm, but it makes the car pull hard, and it feels sporty. The highway mileage for the automatic and stick are the same, not surprisingly, since they share a gearbox and basic design; the automatic has twin clutches and shifts for you.

The cabin is very quiet, and has little to no wind, engine, or road noise at 60 mph. The view is amazing, with no blind spots to speak of. It could use some window tinting, I felt I was in a fish bowl. Despite the very small size of the car outside, it seemed roomy front and back, and was well finished.

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There are some downsides; while the interior finish was good, I did not like the cheap-feeling materials; it looks as though the fabric could easily get dirty, and be hard to clean. The seats are too short and hard, making it hard to get comfortable and making the 500L seem unlikely for long trips. The steering could use a better on-center feel.

Overall, I was impressed with the 500L. It has loads of standard options, and a good starting price, though that price creeps up quickly as you move through the trim levels.

The US/Canada Fiat 500L has the 160-horsepower, 184-lb-ft, 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo engine and either a dual-clutch automatic or a manual six-speed, powertrains also used in the Dodge Dart Aero. Fiat 500L is 23 inches longer than Fiat 500, but around 20 inches shorter than Dodge Dart; it weighs in at 3,203 lb, about the same as Dart. The red 500L has been photo-enhanced beyond the original's color saturation. Main Fiat 500L page

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