Rating: 8.8
Bottom Line:
Drawing on their winning 500 styling, FIAT has moved up a big step to the B-car segment. Fun styling, a quiet cabin and competitive value are FIAT’s hopes for success in this more aggressive market.
  • FIAT styling in a 4-door package
  • Fair value-to-content ratio
  • Immense sunroof, manual transmission
  • Noisy revver
  • Bothersome turbo lag
  • No opaque sunroof blind

View Pictures:  2014 FIAT 500L

FIAT has been doing great business selling the adorably cute 500. But FIAT dealers can't live on one model alone, so with FIAT's extensive model line in the home country to draw on, it's no surprise the Italian giant has quickly brought a larger, B-segment sedan to the U.S. The resulting FIAT 500L revisits the 500's style in fashioning a car for the much more cutthroat 4-door sedan market where buyers are not wanting for choice.

Model lineup
Dedicated to the idea that amenities and small cars are a good mix, FIAT is not skimping on 500L features, and is offering a four-car range to suit buyer budgets and desires.

The entry-level Pop comes with a manual transmission and 16-inch steel wheels shod with Continental or Goodyear all-season tires. It's offered in five of the 10 500L colors, and forgoes the two-tone paint treatment (black or white roof) that's optional on all other 500Ls. Dark window tinting is also not available on the Pop. But aside from the more limited appearance options, the Pop is mechanically well equipped, enjoying the same 4-wheel disc brakes, turbocharged engine, tilt steering and connectivity. Inside, the Pop offers only the gray color treatment in cloth, and while air conditioning is standard, automated temperature control is not available.

Those finding the Pop lacking in features will undoubtedly see the $1,000 step up to the Easy trim as money well spent. Nicely equipped stock, and offering almost all other 500L features as options, the Easy is where premium cloth upholstery is standard, along with leather touch points such as the steering wheel and shift knob. A huge sunroof is available, as is a bicolor roof option and a choice of nine exterior colors. We expect this to be the most popular 500L variant.

Not so much a vertical move up the feature ladder as a lateral nod to those with active lifestyles, the Trekking trim employs the Easy's content and options, but fashions itself for the kayaking and mountain-bike crowd. Most of this is done with unique fascias and styling cues, plus a few key interior trim items. The idea behind the Trekking is a more aggressive, premium look.

Topping the 500L line is the all-out Lounge. Luxury is the game here: Heated leather seats, chromed heated exterior mirrors, automatic climate control and Sirius XM radio are all standard.

For those not buying a Pop, FIAT is offering a 500L inaugural-year incentive: the $1,745 Premier package at no charge. It includes a larger touch screen, a backup camera, navigation and rear parking assist. In a sign of the times, there is no CD player in the 500L lineup; instead, there are auxiliary ports, USB and an SD card.

Under the hood
It looks like a giant 500, but the 500L is a completely different car. It's built on a near-midsize platform with a MacPherson strut front suspension and a twist beam rear axle with coil springs.

All 500Ls are powered by the 1.4-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged intercooled engine commonly referred to as the MultiAir Turbo in FIAT and Chrysler circles (Chrysler is owned by FIAT). It produces 160 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 184 lb-ft of torque at 2500 rpm while burning 91 octane premium, but 87 octane is allowed.

A trick little number, the 4-valve 1.4-liter MultiAir engine employs a relatively low 9.8:1 compression ratio and a healthy 21 pounds per square inch of boost. Given its relatively small displacement, the MultiAir relies on boost to give the 500L a bit more oomph beyond puttering around or gentle cruising.

Much to its credit, FIAT offers two good front-wheel-drive transaxles, either the standard 6-speed twin-clutch manual that's the only choice in the Pop, or a 6-speed traditional automatic. There is no all-wheel-drive option.

Modern, smooth and easy to rev, the MultiAir Turbo is something of a go-to engine in FIAT/Chrysler vehicle range, where it provides a good compromise between power and fuel economy. It seems to have just met its weight match in the 3,200-pound 500L, with a useful 33 mpg highway rating. City ratings are 25 mpg for the manual and 24 mpg for the automatic. Combined ratings are 28 mpg and 27 mpg, respectively.

Inner space
Fundamental to the 500L's personality is its tall body. It gives generous headroom and allows for an upright seating position, which delivers FIAT's goal of an open, airy cabin. This feeling is greatly aided by the expansive sunroof, which helps to "transform the car interior into a patio," as designer Fabrizio Vacca puts it.

A downside to the sunroof: It is so large that only a perforated fabric sunshade can be fitted; there is no opaque sun blocker. While this was sufficient in early summer mid-Atlantic sunshine, its efficacy in Phoenix come August remains to be seen.

FIAT also gained front-seat roominess via a narrow center console — think an airliner armrest — and some clever cubby and storage compartment design, but there are still tight packaging moments around the parking brake handle and some of the seat controls.

Overall front-seat room is fine, and rear-seat room is generous for children and acceptable for large adults with a little accommodation by front-seaters. Fun, Italian design features are found throughout the cabin. Many of these are simply styling cues, but others, such as the sliding rear seat, offer practicality, especially when optimizing for rear cargo room.

On the road
The 500L drives a little smaller than it looks, meaning it's more nimble than expected and, while tall, has no more body roll than its competitors. The steering is direct and nicely weighted, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel offers your hands a sure grip.

Power is adequate, with good acceleration at lower speeds that trails off a little at freeway velocities. Characteristically of turbocharged, small-displacement engines in relatively weighty sedans, engine response is fine at both slow speeds and when running flat-out up freeway ramps, but sharp speed adjustments in city traffic and other zippy moves leave the engine bogging until the turbo spools up. This is true with both the automatic and manual transmissions, with the automatic maybe a little better because it will jump down a gear after a moment. The manual is an easy, pleasant shifter, so transmission choice comes down to personal preference.

Some may worry about outward visibility given the double pillars at the side of the windshield. In practice they are rarely in the way. And kudos to FIAT for extending the ignition switch away from the steering column to ease access.

Right for you?
The reason to buy a 500L is the Italian flair that emanates from its bones. FIAT sees the 500L as a multiuse vehicle, a sort of non-SUV sedan, but one that is still fun, utilitarian and obviously a vehicle. Additionally, its Italian origins channel vintage Euro appeal, alpine picnics, touring and urbane panache along with everyday practicality.

If those attributes appeal to you and price is a concern, then the somewhat minimalist Pop at $19,100 is the choice. Mainstream buyers will naturally flock to the $20,195 Easy; active lifestylers might find some extra attraction to the Trekking's unique styling and $21,195 price tag. Those with the means and a full-blown bell-and-whistle urge should head straight to the Lounge at $24,195.

(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

Longtime Road & Track contributor Tom Wilson's credits include local racing championships, three technical engine books and hundreds of freelance articles.