Fiat means business and that means making the 500 more appealing to North American small-car buyers by giving them more of what they really, really want. That's where the all-new 500L enters the picture.
Sure, the original "Cinquecento" two-door hatchback and its semi-convertible Cabrio and Abarth offshoots are kind of adorable. But let's face it; any car that's half a foot shorter than a Mini Cooper is bound to be a tight fit, especially for anyone occupying the back seat. That's why the brand-extending Mini Clubman and Countryman were created and it's for the same reason that the four-door 500L will debut early this summer.
Physically, the Serbia-built 500L shares nothing with the 500 two-door, but it does exude a saucy character that's unmistakably Fiat. What really sticks out as unique are the 500L's double windshield pillars that are separated by a glass panel. Interesting, but there will likely be some criticism over forward visibility. Despite that bit of quirkiness, the design is rather attractive as well as useful.
Getting the 500 to a more practical state meant employing a larger version of the 500's platform, called "small-wide". The tale of the tape reveals a gain of 27.5 inches in overall length, about six inches in width and height and slightly more than a foot between the front and rear wheels, resulting in 42-percent greater interior volume. You can almost hear six-footer-plus-types across the land cheering at this news.
The 500L is also somewhat larger than its nearest rival, the four-door Mini Cooper Countryman, which translates into considerably more passenger and luggage room.
Fiat has also fashioned the rear seat to accommodate three people, for a total of five (the Countryman is limited to four), although it will help if the meat-in-the-sandwich occupant is less than adult sized. Both the front and the 60:40 split rear seat can be folded when extra cargo space is called for.
The rest of the 500L's interior is more modernistic than that of the 500 and features twin gauge pods in place of a single multi-purpose unit. As well, the L's shifter is floor-mounted instead of being angled directly below the dashboard.
Fiat wisely chose not to install the 500's 101-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder in North American versions of the 500L. Instead, the standard powerplant is the turbocharged 1.4 used in the sporty 500 Abarth. The engine is also optional in the Alfa Romeo Giulietta-based Dodge Dart as both Alfa and Chrysler/Dodge are part of Fiat now. The engine pumps out 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, which should be enough to satisfy most drivers.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard fare, while a six-speed automated manual (no clutch pedal) is optional. The latter is designed to produce rapid-fire upshifts. As of this writing, fuel-economy numbers haven't been released, but a good guesstimate would be 26 mpg in the city and 32 highway for versions with the six-speed stick.
It's also a bit early to discuss standard and optional features, but what is known is that the 500L will be offered in Pop, Easy, Trekking and Lounge models. Of the four, the off-road-emulating Trekking, pictured here, will be the most visually stimulating with its unique blacked-out lower rear bodywork and protruding nose (think British Bulldog), 17-inch wheels (16s are standard) and two-tone interior. Unfortunately, all-wheel-drive is not on the Trekking's build sheet, which pretty much limits where you can actually trek to.
Other up-level equipment includes a panoramic glass sunroof, enlarged touch-screen controls for the audio, communications and navigation systems and a premium Beats by Dr. Dre audio system.
Pricing is expected to come in at about $22,000 for base models (including destination charges), but will reach into the mid- to upper-$20,000 level when the automatic transmission and other popular options are factored in. Those are reasonable fees for an Italian-bred wagon that won't cramp your style, or you for that matter, while providing an abundance of style that matches its carrying capacity.
What you should know: 2014 Fiat 500L
Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact wagon
Engine (hp): 1.4-liter SOHC I4, turbocharged (160)
Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed twin-clutch automated manual (opt.)
Market position: To establish it as a full-fledged brand, Fiat (like Mini) is introducing a wider range of products to North America, including the 500L. There will likely be more variants heading this way in the next few years.
Points: The 500L maintains the Fiat 500 family appearance, but on a larger scale; Roomier cabin includes improved dashboard ergonomics; Trekking model doesn't match Mini Countryman's available all-wheel-drive system; Four trim levels means something for every budget; Fiat still has some distance to go in moving from niche to mainstream.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 26/32 (MT, est.):
Base price (incl. destination) $22,000 (est.)
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