Fiat saw a 121 percent increase in 500 sales last year: A whopping 43,772 people bought Fiat 500s. While Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has always talked a good game, nobody really expected the 500 hatchback to be much more than a fashion statement in the United States, where microcars make up but a half percent of all vehicles sold. (That's about 75,000 cars if you're doing the math at home.)
From the beginning it was clear that Fiat was going to need something larger and more suited to American driving conditions and American-size drivers. That something is the 2014 Fiat 500L, which lands at all 205 of Fiat's U.S. dealers this month.
Microcar to Large Car in One Easy Step
Although Fiat wants to riff on the brand identity it has established in the 500 nameplate, forget about the 500L being a four-door variant of the chuckable 500. It isn't. Instead, the 2014 Fiat 500L comes to us courtesy of Fiat's new "small-wide" front-wheel-drive chassis architecture, a platform wholly unique from the 500.
This explains why the 500L is more than 2 feet longer than the two-door 500. The extra length does the car's proportions no favor, but when combined with a 12-inch longer wheelbase, it makes for a truly spacious small wagon. In fact, the 2014 Fiat 500L leaps up a half-dozen vehicle classes from the standard 500's subcompact designation and actually qualifies as a large car by EPA measures. And indeed from the cockpit, it feels like you could drop a couple 500s inside the 500L.
Merely Adequate Motivation
There's a lot to like about the MultiAir turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that motivates every 2014 Fiat 500L. It's plenty smooth, it revs with a low-friction zeal and it sounds good even at high rpm.
But with the same 160 horses and 184 pound-feet of torque as the versions in the Fiat 500 Abarth and Dodge Dart, this engine's got its high-tech hands full with the 500L: This wagon weighs 3,254 pounds when equipped with the six-speed, dual-clutch automated manual transmission most buyers will choose. This transmission is a $1,350 option over the conventional six-speed manual that's standard on most trim levels.
In the stoplight-to-stoplight suburban crawl, the 500L is agreeably responsive, thanks in part to careful tuning of the throttle calibration in wagons with the dual-clutch transmission. But if you go to the carpet with the right pedal, the bigger Fiat's power-to-weight ratio is apparent. Fiat officials tell us a 2014 500L equipped with the dual-clutch gearbox will hit 60 mph in 9.1 seconds, an adequate number for a station wagon that competes with the non-turbo 2013 Mini Cooper Countryman and 2013 Mazda 5.
Later on, Fiat will offer a conventional automatic transmission (with a torque converter) alongside the other two gearboxes. Although we like the automated manual's quick, smooth shifts, we're betting it will fall by the wayside once the automaker has a sufficient supply of the torque-converter automatics Americans prefer.
Fuel economy's about what you'd expect for a small but pudgy wagon. With the manual gearbox, the 2014 Fiat 500L is EPA-rated at 25 city/33 highway and 28 mpg combined. Choose the dual-clutch automatic and you'll lose 1 mpg on the city cycle and land at 27 mpg combined. Those familiar with the MultiAir engine's specs might recall that premium unleaded fuel isn't required but it is recommended.
Go Ahead and Corner — a Bit
There's no shame in the MacPherson front struts and twist-beam rear axle holding up the 2014 Fiat 500L. Cornering is secure and there isn't nearly as much body roll as we'd expected from this mini family hauler.
Some of this is attributable to the general stiffness of its platform and the suspension's relatively sporty state of tune. But the 500L's excellent ride quality also owes to the doubtlessly expensive Koni dampers, which provide two damping rates to cope with low- and high-frequency impacts. The Konis are also used on the front of the 500 Abarth, while the new 500L gets them at every corner. There's a disc brake at each corner, too, which is always nice.
Combine that with generally agreeable responses and fine on-center feel from the wagon's electric-assist power steering, and the 500L will hang in there for sharp city corners and wide-radius back-road curves. Push too much, though, and the 500L pushes right back, shoving the nose wide in tight turns. The front-drive wheels shoulder 61 percent of the wagon's weight, so we're not exactly shocked by this behavior, and we doubt many 500L owners will ever drive their cars hard enough to care.
Glide on Inside
We'll let you make your own judgments about the 500L's styling, but in our view, it's the interior that will sell the 500L to customers looking for a fuel-efficient utility vehicle with a unique provenance.
Of the four trim levels (Pop, Easy, Trekking and Lounge), the three upper trims have a rich-looking blend of high design and thick, soft materials for the dash and door panels. There's still some hard plastic, but much less of it than in the standard 500. We were particularly gratified to see a rubberized surface for the small storage shelf beneath the climate controls, which feature automatic temperature control in the 500L Lounge (an optional feature in the Trekking).
In addition to its extra length, the 2014 Fiat 500L is also 6 inches wider than the 500 hatchback, and provides a wealth of space for both front and rear occupants. And the 500L actually has more luggage space behind its rear seats than the Countryman: 23.1 cubic feet versus 16.5 in the Mini. In spite of all the space in here, Fiat officials expect that a mere 22 percent of 500L customers will have kids.
Better still are the outward visibility and overall refinement of Fiat's wagon. The 500L's unique glass A- and D-pillars and low beltline deliver outstanding vision in all directions. Meanwhile, the windshield's acoustic lamination, along with various noise, vibration and harshness reduction measures on U.S.-spec 500Ls, results in a brilliantly quiet cabin, even when the engine's working hard.
Costs Less Than a Mini
Although the market for micro wagons is small in the U.S., the 2014 Fiat 500L has to contend with the Mini Cooper Countryman, a formidable rival with a premium image. The 500L Pop gets off to a good start with its $19,900 base price (including destination): $1,000 cheaper than a base Countryman. However, Fiat officials expect only 5 percent of customers will want the Pop, because it only comes with the six-speed manual.
Instead, the bulk of sales will likely be divided between the unfortunately named Easy ($20,995) with the manual, $22,345 with the automated manual) and the Trekking ($21,995 manual, $23,345 automanual). The company hopes a quarter of buyers will make the stretch for the top-shelf Fiat 500L Lounge ($24,995), which gets the automated manual as standard.
All of the trim levels have a livable standard equipment list that includes a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a split-folding rear seat, Bluetooth, and USB and auxiliary inputs, but each step up nabs extra features. We'd take the Trekking, as its crossover styling details, 17-inch wheels and unique interior treatment do the 500L's design the most justice. As an added incentive for early adopters, Fiat's offering the Premier package and its $1,745 worth of content (a navigation system, a rearview camera and parking sensors) free of charge to first-year buyers of the 500L Easy, Trekking and Lounge.
The Fiat 500L may not be the most svelte-looking car on the road for 2014, and it's certainly not the quickest, but as with the smaller 500, there's just enough Italian influence in its design to keep it interesting. Factor in its relatively low price tag and surprisingly accommodating interior, and the 2014 Fiat 500L should have little difficulty attracting consumers who need real utility but still insist on a dash of style.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.