If ever a car were defined for a singular point in its potential owner's lives, it's the 2014 Fiat 500L — that moment being the first time a young couple steps up to a shiny new vehicle for sale and cares enough to look at the back seat for reasons other than entertainment.
Nearly every vehicle that Fiat has sold in this nation over the past several decades has been aimed at single Americans, from the ancient Spyder roadster to the 500 subcompact. Now that it owns Chrysler, Fiat finally has the resources to broaden its ambitions to those of us paired not just with another person, but responsibilities beyond finding a pizza place open at 2 a.m. It could have done so with the Fiat Panda it sells in Europe, but in keeping with a desire to be seen as stylishly Italian rather than an automotive equal of the Olive Garden, Fiat chose to import the aggressively designed 500L, a decision not without risk.
Yes, let's get to that question: Why does it look like that? Americans have no memory of the '60s-era Fiat 600 Multipla to put in context the idea of a small car with a large cabin. Based off a new chassis that Fiat will use on future Chryslers, the 500L shares no sheetmetal with the subcompact 500, but mimics its front grille. The tale of the tape would put the 500L in the same league as the Mini Cooper Countryman and the Kia Soul, both of which have found buyers for small cars with unique styling, and the Nissan Juke, which hasn't done as well.
A day of tooling around Baltimore found the 500L neither offends nor excites on the road. The 1.6-liter turbo engine with 160 hp that barks in your lap when driving the 500 Abarth gets leashed out of hearing range in the 500L. Base models come with a six-speed manual of too much rubber and not enough glue; there's also a six-speed, dual-clutch automatic that at $1,350 is a bit pricey but will still be the default choice for most buyers, with a regular six-speed auto unavailable until January. Both transmissions were set to near-max fuel economy rather than performance, hitting 33 mpg on highway rides and 24 (25 for the manual) mpg around town. Those choices get echoed by the electric power steering and suspension designed for ride comfort rather than rallying. There's enough power to never feel worried on an on-ramp and scoot into traffic holes, but not enough to think about swapping pinks at stop lights.
Besides, the most attractive features of the 500L can be enjoyed with the speedometer at rest. The ten windows give the 500L's cabin a glass-loft feel that's only magnified by the available two-panel sunroof. As Buick did with the Encore SUV, Fiat discovered that a small car can Jedi mind-trick drivers into sensing their ride as a far larger craft with abundant headroom. Were the 500L ranked by its interior space, it would sit among the Ford Edges and Toyota RAV4s, with 120 cu. ft. of sitting and hauling capacity. Rear legroom is nearly van-like; the seats fold up and flat for storage, and Fiat/Chrysler has at least one engineer who's struggled long enough with child car seats to make seat anchors visible rather than grasped only after a Hillbilly Handfishing re-enactment.
While Fiat's clearly playing from the Mini marketing manual, the European pug-nose styling of the 500L doesn't work as well as the 500. No surprise then that when the time came to Americanize the 500L, the U.S. designers added a new trim level called Trekking and gave it SUV hallmarks – an aggressive front bumper cut-out, a thin strip of cladding along the bottom and a contrasting body bumper along with a white roof. Usually this kind of visual Tupperware fails, but the 500L Trekking looks lower and wider on the road than the Easy, Pop and Lounge models — and Fiat execs not only expect it to account for the majority of U.S. sales, but have started shipping it around Europe as well.
Built in Serbia at the same plant that once made Yugos, the 500L starts at $19,900 for a base-level Pop with the manual. The full-boat Lounge edition checks in just a fiver shy of $25,000, which parks the 500L square against the compact crowd. For sheer driving pleasure, I'd take the Mini Countryman without pause, but if I had to bring a dog or a car seat or a relative by marriage for a long trip, the Fiat 500L would win. And there'd be no stopping at the Olive Garden.