Fiat 500L has am­ple space, imp­ish charm

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - AUTOS - By Graeme Fletcher

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.

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