Fiat 500L has ample space, impish charm
THE introduction of the 500L builds on the niche Fiat started with the original 500. The first 500 is more of an accessory and/or fashion statement than functional transportation because of its diminutive size — the pumped-up Abarth being the exception to the rule.
On the other hand, the 500L is a large car with some very real space and cargo capacity. Aside from the two extra doors, it is the 312-millimetre stretch in the wheelbase that makes the biggest difference. It not only adds acres of rear seat space, it adds the missing cargo capacity. With the seats upright there’s a respectable 654 litres and with the seats folded flat that number blossoms to 1,690 L.
The hitch is there isn’t a flat floor. If you tumble the rear seats up against the front seats, there is a large dropoff where the trunk floor ends. If one just folds the seat back down, the rear load floor must be moved to its raised position to get any semblance of a flat floor. Again, the hitch is the movable section is too flimsy to support anything of substance, or at least that’s the way it felt when I pressed on it.
One of the intriguing bits is how the rear seats slide back and forth. This maxes out legroom or increases the space behind the seat. I say intriguing because when the seats are unlatched from the top release they fold forward and, as mentioned, tumble up against the front seats, which would ease ingress to a third row. Could this mean the seven-seat 500L announced for Europe is being readied for North America?
Up front, there is, again, plenty of space and abundant headroom. The large glass expanse does make it feel like a mobile goldfish bowl, but it also translates into some pretty good sightlines to the side and rear, and adds an airy feel to the cabin.
However, there are two things I did not like. First, the seat base is short and left me wanting more thigh support. Second, the elaborate infotainment system arrives with a navigation button. But when pressed, the system asks for an activation code. That activation code will set a potential customer back $495. Aside from the fact an aftermarket unit costs less than a third of the price, it is blatantly obvious that everything needed for the navigation system is already in place. The pricing needs to be rethought here, otherwise, Garmin, here I come.
All 500Ls are powered by a turbocharged 1.4L four-cylinder engine that pushes 160 hp and 184 pound-feet of torque at a respectably low 2,500 rpm. The power is relayed to the front wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox or optional six-speed twin-clutch transmission. When teamed with the latter, the 500L delivers ample pep when booting about town with just the driver aboard. Yes, the initial launch is blunted when the seating and/or cargo capacities are used to the max, which mandates a strong stab at the gas to get things moving and a degree of patience as the speed builds — the 10.9-second run to 100 km/h pretty much says it all.
Mind you, there are no complaints with the mid-range. It is strong and, once up to speed, the 500L cruises the highway very nicely indeed.
The lack of initial launch speed aside, the thing that irked me during the test was the manner in which the twin-clutch transmission operated. For the most part, it was smooth and coordinated. However, it was not always this way. Occasionally it would lurch between gears. It also upshifted annoyingly early for fuel economy reasons. As a result, when the gas pedal was hammered, the ensuing kickdown was less than smooth because it occasionally needed to drop more than one gear.
Now I could live with the occasional herky-jerky shift and the unwieldy kickdown, but not the malodorous emanation from the gearbox after the 500L had been up a slight grade. In fairness, the car was brand new (only 650 kilometres on the clock) and likely still going through its break-in phase, but the smell was enough to prompt passersby to comment on the stench. It does not bode well for the long-term.
The 500L is rewardingly nimble and agile when urged on through a corner. The suspension manages to soak up the rigours of a rough road very well and it does so without allowing too much body roll in the process — much of what is felt is more perceived than real because of the high seating position.
The Lounge version of the 500L, equipped with upsized P225/45R17 tires, also delivers the right sort of lateral grip, which means understeer is benign and the response to steering input is sharp and crisp. The larger 500L reminded me of its smaller sibling in that it has an impishness to its road manners. This I did not expect.
The Fiat 500L is a generally wellconceived car. It has above average front and rear seat space, ample cargo volume and, in spite of my criticisms, a fair share of flexibility. The twin-clutch transmission is the chink in its armour that cannot be overlooked. The moral of the story? Stick with the manual transmission — at least that way you only have yourself to blame when the clutch goes sideways.