The reborn Fiat 500 has been a massive hit in Europe, and after a shaky start, is starting to win hearts in North America, too.
No surprise then that Fiat's next big idea is to take the essence of the 500 and serve it up in alternative dishes not unlike Mini has done with the Cooper. Next on the menu is the 2014 Fiat 500L, a longer, taller, four-door mini-MPV.
The Fiat 500L is not only easier to get into thanks to its loftier ride height and extra set of doors, but it's decidedly more spacious inside, too. It's a formula that typically works well in the U.S., minicar or not.
Extra Small MPV
Fiat calls the 500L a "city lounge" car, which of course doesn't translate to anything familiar. Europeans would call it a mini-MPV, but the 500L is far smaller than any minivan sold in the U.S. Think of something more like Honda's Fit or the 2013 Scion xD and you would be closer to approximating the 500L's general proportions. But none of those vehicles is as stylishly finished, nor do they come with engines as small as the Fiat's.
Indeed, the European-spec Fiat 500L we sampled in France comes with only two cylinders that add up to just under a liter of displacement. U.S.-bound models will get a larger 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder that delivers significantly more punch.
Thankfully, we got a go in a Multijet diesel as well that more closely approximated the power of the U.S. engine. Both of the European engines produce 105 horsepower — well short of the U.S. model's 160 hp — but the diesel engine at least offers up 199 pound-feet of torque, a slight improvement over the 184 lb-ft delivered by the U.S. engine.
Meager but Eager
This is a car that begs to be driven hard, just like baby Fiats 40 years back. Its power delivery is smooth and it responds well when you dig deep into the throttle, even if it doesn't have much to give. At higher speeds the small dual-cylinder engine runs out of steam and starts to feel as if it had driven into a vat of molasses.
Happily, such power shortfalls are not going to be a problem for U.S.-spec 500Ls, as a quick whizz in the much stouter diesel model proves. Its authoritative acceleration makes conducting the 500L a decidedly more relaxed business, if a slightly less exciting one.
Both manual and dual-clutch automatic transmissions will be offered in the U.S., both with six speeds. Clearly the manual will let you get the most out of what's available, but we suspect that the majority of 500Ls will have the automatic.
Flat Through the Corners
We were more than a bit surprised with the handling the 2014 Fiat 500L displayed on twisty roads. Tall vehicles with high centers of gravity typically like to roll, but this car stays impressively flat when you fling it into a tight turn, and doesn't understeer much either. The result is that having flung the Fiat at one bend, you immediately feel like flinging it at another. Especially as your high vantage point and the clever see-through roof pillars give you extra confidence.
Same goes for the more than adequate brakes and the Fiat's unfussed grip. True, its steering assistance has you wondering whether there's any mechanical connection between wheel rim and tire at all, but the mechanism is accurate enough that you'll positively enjoy mounting a light assault on your favorite back road.
That kind of performance isn't the main point of this car, but it's certainly a pleasing bonus. So is a ride that doesn't turn choppier than an Atlantic squall. You feel bumps, but not with regret, and there's enough refinement on the highway to make long journeys entirely viable.
Unique Inside and Out
Given the miniaturized glamour of the 500 hatchback, it would be reasonable to expect more of the same from its new big brother. To a certain extent you get it, too, though the bigger car loses some of the smaller machine's charm.
Thankfully, the 2014 Fiat 500L still has character and an aura of quality, too, thanks to the two-tone paint schemes, the high-quality detail in the lighting, door handles and rubbing strips and the fact that you can see a face in the front end of this Fiat. It's actually a face that differs slightly from the European look, the U.S. 500L flaunting a more aggressively sculpted lower bumper housing and a faux aluminum lower section.
The impression of tasteful quality continues inside, with much of the dash finished in either a glossy body color or, on the upmarket Lounge version, skinned in a vinyl that looks astonishingly similar to soft, high-grade leather. This and the imaginatively designed upholstery do a fine job of diverting your eye from the lower-grade plastics found in the floor and rocker zones. A stylish leather wheel, attractive instruments and easily intelligible controls all create a positive aura, as does the feeling that the 500L's body is a robustly substantial structure.
Downsides? There are a few. The front seat cushions could be longer and the steering is more detached than we like. Rear passenger room is also tight for three, so it's more like a four-passenger vehicle at best.
We don't yet know the price either, but in Europe it certainly isn't a stand-out value. Still, the 2014 Fiat 500L can lay claim to being the only "Italian-designed urban utility vehicle" on the market in the U.S., a prospect that might serve it well in this typically dull segment.
And given the success of the Mini Countryman, the four-door big brother to the standard Cooper coupe, it's not a stretch to say that the 500L gives Fiat a much better shot at generating bigger sales in the U.S. when it goes on sale this summer.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.