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2014 Fiat 500L: And now for something completely different


by: FIAT AUTO GROUP - The 2014 Fiat 500L is for those who want something truly distinctive.The 2014 Fiat 500L is my nominee for Oddball Car of the Year, and I say that as someone who likes oddball cars.

The Fiat 500 that was reintroduced to America a few years ago was rightly hailed as an updated-but-retro version of the tiny car that conquered Europe and won a cult following in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s. But the original Fiat 500 was just one of many interesting European cars that made it over to these shores in limited numbers in those days, and the larger 500L reminds me of the bigger Austins, Peugeots, Renaults, Saabs and Volvos that you hardly ever see any more — different than everything else on the road but still incredibly roomy, practical and fun to drive.

The Fiat 500L is not simply a Fiat 500 with a longer wheelbase. It is a totally different and much bigger and boxier vehicle with a front end styled to resemble the smaller Fiat 500. The resulting proportions are genuinely quirky, not intentionally quirky like the Kia Soul or Nissan Cube.

Like the earlier European cars, the 500L is for people who really don't care what the neighbors think. It clearly was not designed by a committee trying to please everyone. The front window slopes less than most current cars and the side and back windows are practically vertical, making the it look like some kind of delivery van glimpsed in a post-World War II European travelogue. Though unconventional, the design results in enormous interior room and amazing visibility for the driver and all passengers. The interior also benefits from retro design that looks both old fashioned and modern at the same time.

The 500L also drives differently than most other cars. The seating position is high, more like a van or crossover than a small wagon. The suspension is relatively soft, resulting in a slightly bouncy ride over broken pavement. Although the steering was short of precise, it worked well with the suspension, encouraging the 500L to be thrown around with abandon.

The only available engine is a tiny turbocharged 1.4-liter inline four cylinder engine that produces 160 horsepower. It is the same engine that's optional in the Dodge Dart. But, even though the 500 L is heavier, our test model was no slug, thanks to the optional six-speed automated manual transmission that shifts more abruptly than a conventional automatic. A six-speed manual is standard.

Like all genuinely quirky cars, it too a little practice to drive the 500L smoothly. The throttle and brakes respond best to a light tough, not a heavy foot. Too much gas and the little turbo spun up faster than the transmission could transit the power to the wheels, making it feel more like a Continuously Variable Transmission. The brakes also grabbed under even moderate braking, which was good for panic stops but a little annoying in urban driving.

But after just a couple days of driving, it was easy too keep the 500L in the groove both in town and on the freeway, including a surprisingly fast drive down to the Columbia River Gorge. The resulting ride was almost always entertaining, which is something missing in most other small wagons and small crossovers these days.

The base 500L, called Pop, starts at just under $20,000. Our well-equipped Trekking model was priced at $26,845. It came with a Premium Package that includes a large, 6.5-inch touch screen, back-up camera, and upgraded radio with GPS navigation. An Easy model fits in between those two, and the top-of-the-line lounge model starts at just over $24,000. None of those prices are out of line with the 500L's obvious competitors, such as the Soul or, if you're willing to spend more money, the BMW Mini, which also comes in small and larger versions.

The 2014 500L is one of the most original vehicles on the road today. It should appeal to those with large families (or a lot of friends) who want to start trends, not follow them.

2014 Fiat 500L

Base price: $19,195.

Price as tested: $26,845.

Type: 5-door, 5-passenger wagon.

Engine: Turbo 1.4-liter.

EPA estimated mileage: 30 city/28 highway

Overall length: 167.1 inches

Curb weight: 3,203 pounds

Final assembly: Kragujevac, Serbia