Fiat puts a smile on 500L's face, and yours, too

  • Article by: MARK PHELAN , Detroit Free Press
  • Updated: September 13, 2013 - 10:45 PM

With enjoyable performance and good value, the new Fiat is a welcome newcomer.

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The 2014 Fiat 500L is a five-door vehicle that's 27 inches longer, 6 inches taller and 6 inches wider than the 500, Fiat's first vehicle in its return to the U.S.

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Fiat’s a newcomer to the U.S., but the Italian automaker has been doing several things well since it was founded 114 years ago:

• Cramming lots of interior space into tiny cars.

• Wringing spirited performance from small engines.

• Imbuing affordable little cars with unique Italian style.

The roomy little three-star 2014 Fiat 500L puts those strengths on display in a charming and enjoyable package.

The red 500L Lounge I tested looked like a cheeky cartoon character come to life. The grinning face that its headlights and grille presented made me smile every time I walked up to the 500L.

Prices for the 2014 500L four-door hatchback start at $19,100. All models come with a 160-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine. The base model has a six-speed manual transmission.

For an automatic transmission, you have to move a couple of rungs up the price ladder to the Easy trim package. It goes for $20,195 with the manual and $21,545 with Fiat’s six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Dual-clutch transmissions are mechanically similar to manuals, but the driver doesn’t have to shift gears and there’s no clutch pedal.

Dual-clutch transmissions, or DCTs, are popular in Europe. They’re fuel-efficient and cost less than the automatic transmissions most Americans are used to. Several automakers, including Audi, Ford and Volkswagen, sell dual-clutches in the U.S. Some customers here have complained DCTs don’t feel like the transmissions they’re used to. I found the 500L’s DCT pleasant and accommodating to enthusiastic driving.

I tested a very well-equipped 500L Lounge, the top model. It had the DCT, Beats audio, leather seats, Bluetooth phone and audio compatibility, a navigation system, touch screen, good voice recognition and more.

It stickered at $24,695. All prices exclude destination charges.

The 500L competes with offbeat and space-efficient models like the Audi A3, Buick Encore, Kia Soul, Mini Cooper Countryman, Nissan Juke and Volkswagen Golf. The 500L’s price and features compare very favorably to them.

The 500L is a small car — a full foot shorter than a Honda Civic sedan — but has a very spacious interior. The passenger compartment offers plenty of leg and shoulder space and stratospheric headroom. The hatchback provides plenty of luggage space, a cargo cover and an adjustable floor that allows you to create two-level storage with a compartment for laptops and other small items.

It’s an exceptionally comfortable and practical car. There are some ergonomic issues, though. The cargo cover is difficult to remove. There’s no good place to put phones and music players. An auxiliary glove box would be easier to use if it were hinged at the top or had a gas strut to open the door.

The 500L’s name and looks recall the smaller two-door 500, but it’s completely different mechanically. It uses a different architecture and comes from a different plant. The 500L’s platform will underpin a variety of subcompacts from various Chrysler-Fiat brands.

The 500 coupe is 27.7 inches shorter than the 500L.

Its room and practicality should appeal to a very different group of buyers.

  • 2014 FIAT 500L LOUNGE

    Type of vehicle: Front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback

    Rating: Three out of four stars

    Reasons to buy: Interior room, looks, value, fun

    Shortcomings: Premium fuel, interior storage, ergonomics, mild torque steer

    Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged SOHC variable timing 16-valve four-cylinder

    Power: 160 horsepower at 5,500 rpm; 184 pound-feet of torque at 2,500-4,000 rpm

    Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch automatic

    EPA fuel economy rating: 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway/27 mpg combined. Premium gasoline

    Wheelbase: 102.8 inches

    Length: 167.3 inches

    Width: 69.8 inches

    Curb weight: 3,254 lbs.

    Base price: $24,195

    Price as tested: $24,695

    All prices exclude destination charge

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