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First drive: Funky Fiat 500L creates a mixed impression

First drive: Funky Fiat 500L creates a mixed impression

We had the opportunity to spend some time (and miles) with the new Fiat 500L—the first new four-door Fiat to grace these shores in decades. With its proportions and appearance, it comes across as cool or odd. Either way, it makes an impression.

As proof, we’ve noticed several cars pulling alongside us snapping pictures on their cell phones. The 500L reminds us of the Mini Cooper Countryman, but at its price point the 500L competes more closely with a Kia Soul. Despite the name, the 500L shares almost nothing with the tiny Fiat 500.

The most striking aspect of the 500L is how roomy it is, especially given its modest footprint. Rear seat accommodations are first class. Large windows afford great visibility and with the super-sized sunroof on the top-trim Lounge we drove, the cabin is extremely airy.


Read our Fiat 500 and 500C road tests, complete with detailed ratings and video.

2014-Fiat-500L-interior-pr.jpgHowever, some of us found that one of the most off-putting things about sitting in the 500L is the car’s awkward styling and driving position. The enormous A-pillar sail windows practically have their own zip code, which is made worse by the fact that you sit so far away from the huge dashboard.

When I comfortably position the driver’s seat—admittedly a bit higher than most—I can’t see the top of the speedometer and tach. But at least access is super easy, thanks to the car’s height and large doors.

The 500L is so tall that it feels like driving a big top hat. Throttle response is blunted to the point that sometimes the car feels unresponsive—the engine and transmission are rarely in-synch. Like the Dodge Dart, the 500L is powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine and automated dual-clutch manual transmission. At low revs, before the turbo spools up, the transmission is trying to smooth the clutch operation, making the car feel flat footed. Part throttle kick-down is way too slow. And in stop-and-go traffic, the car tends to vibrate and feel as if it’s about to stall. Company officials say a conventional six-speed automatic will be offered eventually.

Handling, on the other hand, is quite responsive, although the steering is vague. The ride is overly firm at low speeds but becomes more settled at highway speeds. Noise suppression is decent.

The controls are a mix of easy and horrid. We love Chrysler’s Uconnect and its behind-the-steering wheel audio controls. But, there’s a pesky speed reminder Siri-like voice that pops on whenever you go about 10 mph over the speed limit: “The speed limit is 35 mph.” I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off or adjust the instrument lighting level. Up front, there’s very little storage room to house a smartphone. At least you get two glove boxes. The rear view camera is also a plus. Fit and finish seems pretty good despite the mostly hard surfaces, with nice-to-the-touch materials.

Typically equipped, the 500L Easy lists for $22,395—reasonable next to the Kia Soul and Ford C-Max. However, $27,000 and change for the loaded Lounge seems a bit steep, even if you are the subject of cell phone snapshots.

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