There aren't many cars like the 2014 Fiat 500L on the market today.
It's a tall wagon, not a crossover, because all-wheel drive isn't available.
And it shares only a name and an engine with the much smaller Fiat 500 minicar that reintroduced the Fiat name to the U.S. market after a long hiatus. It's 28 inches longer, for one thing.
But the 500L turned out to be a capacious little wagon that may suit a small family wanting something a little different--and more fuel-efficient--than their neighbors' predictable compact crossovers.
MORE: 2014 Fiat 500L review
Our black-and-white 500L arrived with an EPA fuel-economy rating of 27 mpg combined (24 mpg city, 33 mpg highway) on its window sticker.
2014 Fiat 500L
If you go for the less-expensive six-speed manual gearbox, those ratings rise slightly: 28 mpg combined (25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway).
Over a 471-mile mixed road test that blended highway speeds, hilly farm country, and not too much stop-and-go city traffic, the 2014 Fiat wagon averaged 30.8 mpg.
Which we thought was pretty good for a car with a whole lot of interior space sitting on a fairly small subcompact footprint.
This is a wagon that will seat four full-size adults with plenty of room, largely because everyone sits upright and it's a tall car.
The front seats, while somewhat narrow, have a wide range of adjustment, and even a driver below 5 feet tall could see out of the car with the seat at its highest.
The rear seat in particular is genuinely roomy for two adults, which is hard to say about most other subcompacts. The seat reclines, slides, and folds forward to boot.
What is it?
The visual appearance of our car--the white roof topping a black body, the silver wheels, the tall stance, the odd-looking front end--seemed to puzzle onlookers.
2014 Fiat 500L at twilight, upstate New York
Pretty much no one knew what it was, though the white roof did lead one person to ask if it were a MINI Cooper of some sort.
The Fiat 500L comes with a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. In our car, it was mated to a six-speed twin-clutch automated manual transmission.
The shifting on this car was notably smoother than that of a similar transmission in a 2013 Dodge Dart Limited we drove this past April.
Complaints about the behavior of the automated manual transmission (which Chrysler-Fiat calls "Euro Twin Clutch") have dogged the company's growing range of small cars, but the company has clearly put substantial effort into refining the experience.
The transmission still wasn't as smooth under idle creep as a conventional automatic--when it has to slip its clutch to deliver idle creep--but its shifting was notably better than the Dart's. The greater interior volume of the 500L may have helped as well, making the powertrain seem more isolated.
The Dart compact sedan we tested used the same powertrain as our 500L, rated at 31 mpg combined, and delivered 33.1 mpg on a different test route.
We didn't drive either car aggressively, however, which can hurt gas mileage in a hurry for turbocharged smaller engines.
2014 Fiat 500L at twilight, upstate New York
We noticed that the engine in the Fiat 500L is programmed to hold low engine speeds below 2000 rpm, even if it lugs slightly, for better fuel efficiency.
That means that getting power quickly requires a substantial push on the accelerator--though the gearbox delivers two successive downshifts more quickly than a conventional automatic would have.
A handful of comments from our quick test of the Fiat 500L:
2014 Fiat 500L live photos, 2012 L.A. Auto Show
- The enormous panoramic glass roof added to an already glassy vehicle to make this the brightest, airiest, and most pleasantly open car we've driven in years;
- We liked the modern dash and console layout, with easy USB port access and rubber pads in trays and slots so mobile phones don't slide around;
- Some of the switches are odd; the headlights offer just two positions (On or Off) and the central locking button is hidden in a row of identical buttons on the center stack;
- Folding down and flipping the 60/40 split rear seat forward opens up a large cargo bay, though the subwoofer of the (very good) premium stereo system ruins the flat floor;
- The tall 500L wanders a bit on highways with the wheels pointed straight ahead, and the electric power steering doesn't give a lot of feedback;
- So far, no safety scores for the 500L have been published--but it comes with seven standard airbags, stability control, and active headrests.
A $27.5K small wagon
Our 2014 Fiat 500L Lounge model carried a base price of $24,195, though the base 500L Pop trim level just sneaks under the $20,000 barrier.
Our test car was fitted with the large sunroof ($950), the contrast roof panel in Blanco (white) for $500, the premium Beats audio system with six speakers ($500), and painted 17-inch aluminum wheels ($500).
A large box on the window sticker noted that, "compliments of Fiat," the car included a $1,745 Value Package consisting of the Uconnect system with 6.5-inch touchscreen display, a GPS navigation system built into the audio system, a rearview camera, and the rear parking-assist warning system.
With the mandatory $800 destination fee added in, the bottom line sticker price was $27,455.