- Tall-wagon sensibility
- Lots of features for the price
- Flexible second-row seats
- Great visibility
- Styling might grow on you
- Styling may not grow on you
- Front seats aren't comfortable
- Dual-clutch and manual transmissions shift poorly
- Navigation system is rudimentary
The 2016 Fiat 500L has hatchback utility down pat, but its styling is quirky and performance is average, at best.
The Fiat 500L is a tall hatchback that may share a first name with other Fiats but, in fact, is totally unrelated. A version of the Punto hatchback sold in Europe, the 500L doesn't share much more than a name with the 500 city runabout or the 500X crossover SUV.
As a compact car with large-car head room, the 500L has rivals in vehicles like the Honda Fit, Kia Soul, and Mini Countryman.
The 500L fits in that group rather well, at least from a styling standpoint. It's an awkward-looking vehicle that strikes out on several tangents all at once. The ungainly look has a bulldog's blunt nose, ungainly tiered headlamps, and three different pieces to its horizontal grille—not to mention a roofline that zigs and zags, like the one on the Mini. The squat, playful stance works, we think—but the details bedevil it.
Inside, the 500L takes fewer risks and works better for it. It's organized primarily around a few oval-shaped controls, lots of big round knobs, and a small-ish infotainment screen. On some trim levels, there's distinctive trim that alludes to off-roading, with brown-and-black trim, flared wheel wells, and 17-inch wheels.
Like its looks, the 500L's performance is no better than average, and worse than that in key areas. Powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-4 rated at 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, the 500L taxes its powertrain more than the smaller 500 does with the same engine. Power is sent to the front wheels. Fiat offers a choice between a 6-speed manual and a new 6-speed automatic we think should be the only one offered. A 6-speed dual-clutch automatic was dropped for 2016. The manual option is best left to those with smaller feet as the pedal box is incredibly tight, more than once catching up our size 12s to interrupt shifts.
U.S.-market 500Ls see one crucial change to their strut-and-twist-beam suspension setups: the addition of upgraded Koni shocks. Fiat added them to change the 500L's suspension damping characteristics, which better equip it to smooth out harsher American roads. In comparison to other vehicles in the segment, the 500L is more compliant than the Mini Countryman and delivers nearly as good damping as the Kia Soul. Outside the city, the 500L acquits itself well to highways with fluid, linear steering and a stable grip to the road surface. But the tall hatchback isn't without its quirks, namely the its steering wheel tilted more like that found in a city bus than a city car, which may trip up some drivers when searching for a comfortable driving position.
Don't let it's name fool you. The 500L is significantly bigger than the 500—27.7-inches longer and 6-inches wider, in fact. Its tall roof opens up the greenhouse for class-above head and shoulder room, but it's still not as roomy as its outward proportions promise. After all, the 500L is still a compact by definition with room for just four adults to sit comfortably.
That said, the wider body of the 500L allots more room between drivers and front-seat passengers, but they'll be sitting on seats that aren't what you'd call comfortable. Seat bottoms are more than firm and they're rounded at the edge to improve pedal access. The downside of that seat-bottom shape is a lack of leg support expected by most American drivers.
At rear, the 500L's theatre-style seating gives second-row passengers a better view of the environment around them. Reclining seats and adequate legroom provide additional comfort, but the seat bottoms suffer from the same firm affliction as those up front. In some models, the rear seats slide a tumble to open up the interior for cargo, much like Honda's Magic Seats in the Fit. Even two large roller bags will fit in the rear cargo area without flipping down the rear seatbacks and the cargo floor slides into rails provided on either side to split the cargo area vertically for two levels of storage.
But the cabin only provides limited places to store your things; a shallow tray splits two small gloveboxes, while door pockets provide the remaining stow space.
While the 500L hasn't seen any structural changes for 2016, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety didn't award the Fiat with its Top Safety Pick accolade this year because of its performance in the newly introduced small frontal overlap test. The new test has been notoriously difficult to master and the 500L is no exception, achieving a "poor" score in the test. Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn't tested the 500L.
Still, the safest car is the one that's never in an accident, and the Fiat 500L makes that possibility more probable with its great sightlines, stability control, optional rearview camera, and available rear parking sensors. Should it get tangled up in an incident beyond a small fender bender, the 500L plays host to seven airbags and active headrests as standard.
The 500L is offered in four distinct flavors: Pop, Easy, Trekking, and Lounge.
The Pop base model includes a decent complement of standard equipment, such as air conditioning, cruise control, tilt/telescopic steering wheel with mounted controls, and a multi-position cargo-area panel. The Uconnect 5.0 system is the standard infotainment solution, with a 5.0-inch touchscreen, six speakers, Bluetooth, hands-free calling, voice commands, USB input, and AUX input.
The Fiat 500L Easy (like Sunday morning, we wonder?) adds 16-inch alloy wheels (replacing the steel wheels in the Pop), plus tinted rear glass, a front-seat center console and armrest, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, special cloth upholstery, a vinyl-wrapped instrument panel, and 520-watt sound. Above that, Trekking models add lots of "rugged" appearance extras, including special wheel moldings, larger 17-inch wheels, fog lamps, and two-piece front and rear fascias, plus a unique-to-the-model, two-tone black/brown interior with low-back bucket seats.
The best appointed trim, Lounge, includes leather-wrapped seats, power front seats with heat and driver lumbar adjustment, dual-zone climate control, fog lamps, and rear seats with additional adjustment.
Those unhappy with the 5-inch infotainment system can upsize to Uconnect 6.5 and the 6.5-inch touchscreen its name implies. An SD card reader and text-message readback functionality is part of the package, while dealer-installed navigation is an optional extra. We suggest you take a pass on the dealer-programmed GPS as nearly any smartphone and mount will do a better job.
Fiat offers a small sampling of the customization options familiar to Mini shoppers, such as a roof in contrasting colors and different wheels. And within each of the Easy, Trekking, and Lounge trim levels, there are a handful of available "Collections," which bundle options like nav, parking sensors, the sunroof, a rearview camera, and satellite radio at a slight discount.
Gas mileage is good, but not stellar. The 500L earns estimated ratings of 25 mpg city, 33 highway, 28 combined with the 6-speed manual, according to the EPA. The new 6-speed auto is lower at 22/30/25 mpg.