A Bigger Little Fiat

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Photo by Chrysler Group LLC

2014 Fiat 500L.

If you’ve followed the progress of the Mini car brand in the past 10 years, you know that the sub-brand of BMW has expanded its model range beyond just the classic shape we all know as “the Mini.”

There’s now everything from a sporty two-seat roadster to a large-ish baby SUV with optional all wheel drive wearing the Mini badge. A rather wide range of vehicles, but all branded as Minis and all carrying most of the attributes of the British sensation.

On the heels of Mini’s success the past couple of years has been the resurrection of the Fiat brand in North America. Part of Chrysler, Fiat has gained traction in the small premium segment with variations on the basic 500, a hatchback coupe that’s a good half-size smaller than the regular Mini Cooper coupe.

Now, Fiat is reaching for a wider audience. For those who like the Italian panache of the 500 but find the (barely) 4-seater a bit too cramped, there’s now the 500L. It looks quite a different than the diminutive 500, and sports four doors with access to four real-size adults or five people in a pinch.

Is it as cute as the basic 500? Well, no, but that’s a tough act to follow. The stretched-out 500L rather resembles a very small van, the way the original 500 spawned different models. It lets its driver and passenger sit upright, high off the ground, and features a huge cargo hold.

Fold down the back seats, and the 500L becomes essentially a baby SUV or minivan. Fiat says the overall interior increase is 42% over the basic 500, yet the car isn’t huge on the outside. From the driver’s seat, you definitely feel as though you’re sitting at the wheel of a little bus, with a twin set of roof pillars jutting out toward the front. Very airy, and very different.

“Different” is also the way you might describe the 500L’s looks. When the vehicle was debuted at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show last November, a quiet applause greeted the car as it rolled out onto the stage. It looked like … nobody seemed to know what.

Yes, it’s got Fiat DNA for sure. But the side view is a mixed bag. The wheel arches are squared off at the top, and it’s rather slab-sided. Then again, so is the Countryman, Mini’s larger 4-door model. But somehow Mini’s design department managed to pull off an expanded car a little better.

I must say that darker colors definitely help this bigger Fiat. My test car was a shade of dark gray, with a wonderfully contrasting tan/black interior, which really looked luxurious. I’ve seen the 500L in white, and that lighter hue just isn’t as kind to the overall shape.

But in many cases, people buy a car like this for practicality, and practical the 500L is. With the rear seat folded down, you essentially have a baby SUV in terms of cargo space. And yet, it drives like a small car, with a tight turning radius that makes it really easy to park.

Under the hood, the 500L gets the turbocharged 160 horsepower version of the 1.4 liter engine found in the sporty 500 Abarth. But with lots more weight to haul around, the bigger Fiat isn’t exactly sporty in nature. Oh it’s got enough power to move it around, and my test car had the 6-speed dual clutch automatic transmission, which is an option on the base car but standard on the top-line Lounge model.

And after you get used to the rather weird layout of the interior, with high seats and airy greenhouse, you realize that this is actually a pretty nice vehicle. The Lounge trim will initially feature the $1745 Premier Package at no charge, and that includes the huge 6.5” Uconnect touch screen, navigation system, rear-view camera, and even park assist. Running a few weekend errands in the car, I found it to be quite a fun little urban runabout.

Base price for the Pop trim level 500L is $19,100, and my swanky Lounge test car came out to just under $26,000 with destination and the optional “Beats” audio system. Fiat has a bit of catching up to do with Mini in terms of model range, but with the 500L it’s off to a pretty interesting start.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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