Sunday, June 22, 2014

2014 FIAT 500L 6MT / 6AT

Although the diminutive Fiat 500 led the brand’s return to the U.S. when it bowed here in 2012, the second product in Fiat showrooms is the new-for-2014 500L. It takes the Cinquecento formula and adds inflated proportions and four proper passenger doors and is aimed squarely at the fast-growing compact-crossover market. More practical but less exciting than the plucky 500 it joins in the lineup, the 500L tests the limits of Italian charm.

The L is more than two feet longer than the subcompact, three-door 500 and nearly six inches taller and wider, casting a similar shadow to those of the Kia Soul, Mini Countryman, and Scion xB. The 500L’s swollen dimensions are good for a usable back seat and 22 cubic feet of seats-up storage versus the 500’s measly 10 cubes. The L is also good for about 800 additional pounds of curb weight. Acres of glass deliver great outward visibility, and the high-roof design provides enough headroom to accommodate an you can head bang to rock roll still have room for friends. 

We didn’t expect much performance from the 500L, what with its weighing about the same as our long-term Dodge Dart Rallye (3300-ish pounds) and saddled with the same 160-hp, 1.4-liter turbo four that has proven frustratingly recalcitrant to throttle inputs unless kept on the boil. As in the Dart, meaningful thrust here doesn’t materialize until the 2500-rpm torque peak, which necessitates excessive prodding with the right foot just to keep up with traffic.

A six-speed manual with a long, ropy shifter is standard on the base $19,995 Pop model and allows the greatest control over the peaky 1.4’s power delivery. Stepping up to the $21,195 Easy trim makes a six-speed dual-clutch automatic available for $1350. But as we learned in a test of a similarly equipped Dart, that pairing leaves room for improvement in shift quality and speed, as well as coordination with the turbo four’s nonlinear power band. EPA city/highway ratings are 25/33 mpg for the manual and 24/33 for the dual-clutch, with our observed, throttle-heavy averages coming in at 23 and 27.

Until Chrysler decides to offer the 184-hp, 2.4-liter Tigershark four and a conventional automatic (the latter is on its way to the options sheet soon), we’d choose the manual transmission over the dual-clutch gearbox if we were forced to live with the turbo 1.4 on a regular basis. Similar to our long-term conclusion of a regular 500 Sport, the L loses much of its Italian charm the further it ventures away from the city.

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