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2017 FIAT 500L
New Car Test Drive

Introduction

Essentially a tall wagon, the Fiat 500L debuted as a 2014 model. Despite the similarity in model names, the 500L is a far different sort of vehicle, both beneath the surface and in appearance, than the retro-look Fiat 500 coupe that captivated small-car fans.

Trim levels have been simplified for the 2017 model year, shrinking to the 2017 Fiat 500L Pop, the outdoors-oriented 500L Trekking, and the upper-level 500L Lounge edition. A 6-speed automatic is now the sole transmission for 2017 Fiat 500L models, because the manual gearbox is no longer available. Each 2017 500L trim level gains some standard features.

Little more than the engine is shared with the tiny Fiat 500: a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder that develops 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. In the bigger 500L, that powertrain strains to perform. All Fiat 500L models have front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive is offered only on the 500X crossover.

Partly because of its design, which some critics call quirky but others deem awkward, the 500L hasn’t captured much attention. Compared to other small, relatively spacious vehicles, such as the Honda Fit and Kia Soul, and especially the enticing micro-sized Fiat 500, the 500L is just about devoid of charm and character. Little evidence of Fiat’s Italian heritage can be discerned.

Its driving characteristics are not compelling, either, apart from a satisfying ride. Gas mileage is average, at best.

When it first appeared, the 500L earned Good scores and a Top Safety Pick award from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That designation faded away after the 500L suffered a Poor score on the more rigorous IIHS small-overlap frontal crash test. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn’t crash-tested the 500L at all.

At least outward visibility is excellent, which is good news since a rearview camera is optional (including rear parking sensors) rather than standard. On sunny days, the optional dual-pane sunroof fills the cabin with light.

Fiat offers numerous customization possibilities, including a selection of wheels and a contrasting-color roof treatment. Each trim level can be fitted with any of several available Collections, which group options such as navigation, parking sensors, rearview camera, sunroof, and satellite radio, priced with a modest discount. A BeatsAudio system also is available. An Urbana Appearance Package for Trekking trim features black wheels and accents.

Model Lineup

The 2017 Fiat 500L comes in three trim levels. (Prices are MSRP and do not include the $995 destination charge.)

500L Pop ($20,995), the base model, includes air conditioning, cruise control, a trip computer, six-speaker audio, steering-wheel controls, tilt/telescopic steering column, 16-inch alloy wheels, and a multi-position panel in the cargo area.

500L Trekking ($22,995) adds outdoor-oriented appearance extras, including 17-inch wheels, special wheel moldings, foglamps, heated front seats, BeatsAudio sound, and two-piece front/rear fascias. Leather-trimmed seats are standard. A distinctive two-tone (black/brown) interior with low-back bucket seats is available.

500L Lounge ($23,695) includes leather upholstery, heated front seats and foglamps, as well as driver’s lumbar adjustment, dual-zone automatic climate control, and split-folding rear seatbacks with fore/aft adjustment.

Walkaround

Starting with its blunt nose, tiered headlights and triple-section grille, the 500L isn’t likely to earn any awards for rich design. The shapeless roofline doesn’t help visual appeal, either.

Like nearly all less-than-lovely and graceless vehicles, this Fiat has its followers. Being realistic, though, Fiat fans who fell for the delightful little 500 coupe probably won’t be likely prospects for this wagon, which some folks would simply call a high hatchback.

Distinctive trim elements on the Trekking trim level suggest off-roading, including 17-inch wheels and flared wheel wells.

Interior

Although cabin space isn’t as big as might be expected, the tall roof provides satisfying headroom for each passenger. Five adults would be a squeeze, especially for large passengers, but four can expect to ride comfortably.

Front seats are short on comfort, due in part to bottom cushions that are quite hard. Cushions also are rounded, as in other European vehicles, to ease access to the pedals. Because they’re not squared at the corners, leg support is limited.

Second-row seats are better, positioned higher than those up front, promising at least adequate leg space. Back seats are firm, but may be reclined. On some 500L versions, they can tumble down and also slide fore/aft, providing greater room for either passengers or cargo.

Storage space within the cabin is restricted to little more than the door pockets. A shallow tray divides the twin, small-size gloveboxes. In the cargo hold, a floor panel can be slid into side rails, to provide two-level storage. A pair of roller suitcases will fit back there.

As in other Fiat models, the steering wheel is close to horizontally oriented, making piloting the 500L a bit like driving a scaled-down bus. As a result, some people might have trouble finding a suitable driving position, which keeps the instruments visible. Reaching the pedals can be a bit of a stretch, too.

The dashboard centers on several oval-shaped controls, along with plenty of large knobs and a somewhat small touchscreen. Black and brown accents trim the interior.

An available Uconnect 6.5 system includes a 6.5-inch display screen, read back of text messages, and an SD card slot. Also included is dealer-programmable navigation, but it’s an elementary system, with maps that take time to change scale. The regular Uconnect system uses a 5-inch screen.

Driving Impressions

The 500L handles competently and holds the road effectively, a trait expected in an Italian vehicle. Models sold in the U.S. are equipped with Koni shock absorbers, which restrain some of the harshness produced by inadequately maintained roads. When rolling through urban pavements, the suspension irons out bumps, potholes and rough spots almost as effectively as that of a Kia Soul, and better than a Mini Countryman.

A lack of engine power is a drawback, with performance that ranks as average, but no higher. On the highway, however, the 500L responds well, helped by satisfying stability and nicely fluid steering.

Gas mileage falls around average, EPA-rated at 22/30 mpg City/Highway, or 25 mpg Combined, using premium-grade gasoline.

Summary

The 2017 Fiat 500L is a tall wagon/hatchback that delivers good value among practical, utilitarian vehicles, with abundant standard features at a reasonable price. Performance does not excel, but ride quality is pleasing, due partly to its premium-grade shock absorbers. Its styling is controversial.

Driving impressions by John Voelcker, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.


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