The 2015 Fiat 500L is a compact four-door, five-passenger hatchback that couples personality with practicality. Designed to offer more cargo and passenger space than the subcompact Fiat 500, the 500L retains that car's charisma but expands its usefulness with two additional doors. Its larger size certainly makes it more practical that the original Fiat 500, but its lack of overall polish leaves it a few steps behind its competitors.
What Is It?
A larger, four-door companion to the original Fiat 500, the 500L is more than 2 feet longer overall and 5 inches wider. Our 2015 Fiat 500L Trekking is one notch below the top-of-the-line Lounge trim. In total, four trim levels are offered, including the lower-end Pop and Easy models. The base Pop trim starts at $21,245. Our tester, equipped with the $6,000 Trekking Collection 5 package (navigation, back-up camera, dual-zone climate control, heated seats, sunroof and more) and the $1,350 automatic transmission totaled $29,795.
All four trims are front-wheel drive and utilize a 160-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine. Three transmissions are offered, all of them with six speeds — a manual, an automated manual and, new this year, a conventional automatic. All-wheel drive isn't available.
How Does It Drive?
Compact hatchbacks aren't known for their driving dynamics, but the 500L is among the worst offenders. Its combination of an awkward driving position, limited visibility and mediocre handling qualify it for bottom-of-the-barrel status in a pretty deep barrel.
Even those who appreciate the virtues of an upright driving position will be frustrated by the Fiat's insistence on it. Front-quarter visibility can be difficult because the two leading roof pillars are both in front of the driver and positioned close enough together that they hide vehicles or pedestrians from view in some situations.
This quirky, little Italian offers a few driving virtues, however, and the performance of its new automatic transmission is among them. The new gearbox provides better control than the automated manual transmission that comes on the base trim levels.
Power is modest, but being able to manage it through manual control of the gearbox (rev-matched downshifts included) is a big improvement over the erratic and unpredictable behavior of the automated manual. Our test car reached 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, which is about average for the segment.
Set the 500L in a corner and it's reasonably easy to control, with low but defined limits that end in predictable understeer. Still, the 500L's height, driving position and overall attitude about being driven quickly deterred any desire we had to drive it that way. This is an urban errand runner and nothing more.
The ride quality is also busy. Though there's nothing in the 500L's handling character to indicate it wants to be driven quickly, there's also nothing about its ride quality that indicates it's designed for comfort. Seemingly small imperfections send the body into erratic vertical motions.
Is It Comfortable?
Being tall has its advantages. Among those is a bright, airy cockpit. Bright because nearly every vertical surface above shoulder level is made of glass. Airy thanks to tall roof pillars. Our tester's optional sunroof consumes two-thirds of the horizontal roof space, making thin-haired occupants fond of hats, sunscreen or both. Some drivers will appreciate that ambient light seeps abundantly through the fully deployed sunshade.
With a bulging seat bottom and seatback, the front seats fit like an overinflated yoga ball. We never made peace with the granite cushions, and the seatback defiantly refused to fit our shape regardless of angle. If you're picky about seat comfort, try these before you buy.
There's plenty of legroom in the backseat, but passengers with long torsos will struggle with headroom in sunroof-equipped models. The overly hard theme continues with the rear-seat bottoms, where the need for softer padding is more dramatic than in the front.
Leather seats come with the Trekking Collection 5 package, yet their mix of textures serves only to further confuse the Fiat's middling materials and assembly quality. Knobs offer little sureness and stalks click between positions with minimal solidity. Nothing here is really awful, but most competitors offer nicer materials and better operating precision.
How Practical Is the 500L?
Cargo space is abundant in the 500L relative to most competitors. Even with its rear seat upright, there are 22.4 cubic feet of space in the cargo area, more than any direct competitor. Folding the rear seats opens up 68 cubic feet of cargo space, which is also among the best in the segment and far more than the immediate competition.
The hatch conceals a rear shelf which, in its upper position, elevates the floor to the same level as the folded rear seats, creating a nearly flat cargo area. In its lower position, the shelf rests several inches above the floor. The optional subwoofer for the high-end audio system consumes valuable space, a consideration for those who would prefer more cargo room over a better-sounding stereo.
What Safety Features Are Offered?
As standard, seven airbags are packaged in the 500L, including a driver's knee airbag. Optional safety features offered on our test car were a rearview camera and rear parking sensors.
The 500L hasn't been rated by the federal government in crash tests. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave it a "Good" rating in every category except the demanding small overlap front test, where it earned a "Poor" rating.
What Kind of Fuel Economy Can You Expect?
The EPA rates the 500L equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission at 25 mpg combined (22 city/30 highway). Both the manual and automated manual transmission-equipped models are rated higher in combined mpg.
Our testing produced 20.8 mpg in combined driving, including 25.1 mpg on our standard test loop.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
Though the 2015 Mini Cooper Countryman is probably the 500L's most obvious direct competitor, it is smaller inside and more expensive. But the Cooper is both a better-driving and a higher-quality car.
If you're shopping this segment purely for practicality and value, it would be a mistake to ignore the Japanese and Korean competitors. The 2015 Scion xB, though at the end of its product cycle, offers similar cargo space, better fuel economy and lower cost.
A similar case can be made for the 2015 Kia Soul, though neither provides the same premium feel offered by the Mini.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
You're attracted to the 500L's personality and styling but you need more cargo space than is offered in the Mini Cooper Countryman.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
Similar money will buy you a car with just as much personality, a higher-quality feel and better driving dynamics and efficiency.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.