Road Test: Driving big brother

Fiat 500L grows on you

November 1, 2013
by Emily Atkins

From the Fleet Management October 2013 print edition.

Although they share a name, the Fiat 500L and its little brother, the 500, don’t seem to share the same design genes. Big brother is a lot bigger than the cute, little 500.

From a distance of about 150 metres in your rear-view mirror you might confuse the two for a moment—the headlights and visage bear a family resemblance—but once this European doughboy passes you on the highway, you’ll never mistake the two again.

Where the 500 seems to lean into the wind, eager to go, the 500L is a more staid, stately looking vehicle. Its squared-off shape is reminiscent of a Mini Countryman or even a shrunken Ford Flex.

From the front, the family resemblance is clear. (Photo: Emily Atkins)

It also sports oddly truck-like front sidelight windows, forward of the A-pillar. While strange from a design standpoint, these little windows contribute to the L’s overall excellent visibility. This vehicle has no blindspot, thanks to the broad expanses of glass both fore and aft.

Inside, there is plenty of cargo space, as well as seating for five adults in comfortable, adjustable front and rear seats. Fiat refers to the rear seats as “Tilt, Tumble & Slide”, which means they move forwards and backwards for passenger comfort or cargo space, as well as dropping forwards and flipping into the space behind the front row to make more cargo room. The only limitation to this is that they do not provide a flat rear deck, making moving bulky or heavy objects a little more challenging.

Another consideration is the size of the top-hinged rear cargo door. It’s tall and requires a lot of space behind the car to open. When it’s open there’s a long reach up to the grab handle, and a heavy door to pull down. For smaller, lighter people this would be a challenge; it’s not an operation one would want to repeat many times a day.

The interior is stylish, with two-tone upholstery and red accents. (Photo: Emily Atkins)

Up front, in the cockpit, the L retains a lot of European flair with a stylish two-tone dash treatment and seats to match. It’s also a practical environment, with two glove boxes, two open cubby holes lined with sticky rubber, a storage compartment in the armrest, cupholders and spacious door pockets with water bottle holders. All this storage space is made possible partly by the massive dash. Unless you are a gorilla it’s impossible to even reach the bottom of the windshield from the driver’s seat.

Sadly, the instrument cluster is hard to read, with a strange marking system on the speedometer and red backlighting. The type labels on the steering wheel—as opposed to the pictograms—were also so small as to be illegible. The functionality of the electronics is excellent, however, with seamless Bluetooth-to-smartphone connection, and automatic music playback. The touchscreen is easy to navigate, and voice commands worked reasonably well.

With the six-speed automatic transmission and the 1.4L turbo making 135HP the 500L is a little underpowered. This is the same powerplant as the lighter 500. The engine sounds as though it’s laboring under hard throttle and seems to produce a lot of noise and little acceleration when it drops a gear to pass. That said, once you get cruising on the highway it’s easy to creep up to ticketable velocity without realizing it.

The 500L is smooth, quiet and easy to drive. It handles very well at all speeds, with a firm, comfortable ride and smooth steering input. The brakes are superb, with good feel and great stopping power.

Climate control is one area where this vehicle is a bit weak. Going at full power, the AC had trouble keeping two front-seat occupants cool on a hot, humid day. And forget about opening the windows or sunroof at highway speeds—they create unreasonable noise and buffeting.

With a few small exceptions—like the tall rear door—the 500L is a winner, inside and out. (Photo: Emily Atkins)

While the base price for the 500L Sport is $22,995, the version tested had the panoramic power sunroof option ($1,200), black roof ($500), the automatic transmission ($1,450), park assist and back-up camera ($750), and the UConnect system ($600) that is nav-ready, for a total package price of $29,490. Of those options, the UConnect is likely the most useful, with the automatic transmission running a close second, especially for a fleet buy.

Aside from a few small details, this big Fiat is a winner inside and out. For family or business use, if you need a vehicle with excellent cargo capacity, but still a reasonably compact footprint and decent fuel economy, and crave a stylish option, this is a good choice. The 500L is one of the few vehicles in this category with both panache and practicality, and 
for a reasonable price. It’s a grown 
up 500, and it grows on you.