Toronto Star for Wheels.ca
Retro-styled cars always present a problem for automakers. How do you spin off other models, without compromising the iconic design?
Fiat has stretched its funky little two-door 500 into the four-door, five-passenger 500L while keeping the general look to it.
Although taste is always subjective, I'm still not entirely sold on its appearance overall. But for comfort, price and practicality, this hatchback is hard to beat.
It starts at $19,995 for the Pop trim, which includes air conditioning, and goes up to my top-line Lounge tester, which starts at $25,995.
All start with a six-speed manual transmission that can be upgraded to a six-speed twin-clutch automatic for $1,450, as mine was. I also had a few other upgrades, including navigation, 17-inch white-painted wheels and a matching white roof, that took the price to $29,045.
My Designated Passenger, who has an uncanny knack for guessing the price of each test car to within a few dollars, initially pegged it at $34,000. It felt closer to that higher price, too, with leather seats, backup camera, upgraded stereo and a handsome interior.
All models use a 1.4-L turbocharged engine, which runs on regular-grade gasoline (and includes a capless fuel filler system).
It's no powerhouse, and there's some turbo lag when you ask for sharp acceleration, but overall, it gets the job done.
The transmission's two clutches shift gears almost instantly, with minimal engine power loss, which helps with fuel consumption.
These types of transmissions can sometimes ?stutter? and shift harshly, especially when going from reverse to drive. I've heard a couple of other reviewers complain about this with the Fiat, but I never experienced it.
I used the 500L for a straight-through, 400-kilometre drive. So many seats these days seem to be designed primarily for short commutes and I was fully expecting to land in leg-cramp hell within the first couple of hours.
Instead, the Fiat stayed comfortable all the way. The tall seating position is more like that of a minivan, and visibility is superb in all directions, thanks to the tall windows and especially the thin front pillars and front quarter windows, which basically give you glass all the way around.
It's very roomy inside, including the rear seat, and the boxy shape means there's lots of headroom for rear-seat passengers, as well as those in front.
The rear seats fold flat, but initially, they're higher than the cargo floor. The trick is in a removable cargo tray that you can pull out and reinstall at different heights, one of which brings it level with the folded seats. This allows you to carry taller items when the tray is installed at floor level, or increases the flat cargo floor when needed.
There's a small covered cubby under the floor, but if your valuables don't fit in it, you can put the tray in its uppermost position and hide them under there.
Hit the release, and the rear seats will also tumble forward. It does give you a little more in the way of cargo options, but it's primarily because the 500L is also offered in Europe in an even longer version, with a third row of seats.
The tumblers are necessary in that model to access the back row, but it's probably more cost-effective just to put them into everything that goes down the assembly line.
My issues with this car were minor.
The navigation system takes a long time to activate when the car is first started, and it can be difficult to see the screen on bright days, since so much light comes in through those big windows.
In nastier weather, a quick pull of the wiper stalk gives you a spray of washer fluid, but no wipers. You have to hold the stalk longer ? and consequently spray more fluid ? before the wipers come on to clear the grime away.
My long-distance trek involved mostly wet, salty roads and I would have appreciated quick, one-step wash-n-wipes that didn't waste as much juice.
While there are a lot of hatchbacks on the market, there are fewer of these practical, boxy ?tall wagons.?
The 500L sits about the middle of the pack. It's more expensive than the smaller Honda Fit and Kia Soul, but its starting price is below that of the Mazda5 and Mini Clubman and Countryman. And the priciest 500L trim line is still well under the Mercedes-Benz B-Class.
It doesn't take the corners as sharply as the Mini, but it is roomier and I prefer its simpler controls and more straightforward instrument cluster. And while it doesn't have the cachet of the Benz, the difference in the starting prices is more than $10,000.
If you've always liked the two-door Fiat, but it just isn't big enough, then see how the 500L fits. And if your parameters are just a roomy four-door, give it a test-drive.
It isn't the prettiest car on the road, but beauty is only skin deep and the Fiat 500L's practicality goes right to the bone.
The vehicle tested by freelance writer Jil McIntosh was provided by the manufacturer. firstname.lastname@example.org
2014 Fiat 500L
$19,995 to $25,995, $29,045 as-tested
1.4-L turbocharged four-cylinder
160 hp/184 lb-ft.
Fuel consumption L/100 km:
8.7 city, 6.0 hwy., 8.6 as tested
Honda Fit, Kia Soul, Mazda5, Mercedes-Benz B-Class, Mini Clubman/Countryman, plus any small crossover
Roomy interior, great visibility, practicality
Not as cute as its two-door sibling
The cargo shelf holds up to 90 kilograms