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.
The 1.4-liter turbocharged engine is the same capable power plant that powers the 500, certain versions of the Dodge Dart and a variety of Fiat and Alfa Romeo models in Europe. It produces plenty of power, including 184 pound-feet of torque at just 2,500 rpm.
Unfortunately, the engine needs premium gas to generate full power or attain its EPA window-sticker fuel economy rating of 24 mpg in the city and 33 on the highway. Regular gas won't hurt the engine, but does reduce performance and gasoline mileage.
The 2014 Fiat 500L isn't perfect, but if you can walk up to this grinning Disney character of a car without smiling, you're having a lousy day. Add enjoyable performance and good value, and the new Fiat is a welcome newcomer.