The car you see above is actually not the 2014 Fiat 500L. For most of you, this will be a relief. It’s actually a Fiat Multipla from the mid-1990s. It is ugly. So ugly, in fact, that I love it. I’ve been thinking about importing an LPG-fueled version for use as a daily driver, so that I can fill up at the local taxi garage here for roughly $2/gallon. It’s a terrible idea, I know. Especially when Fiat now sells the Multipla’s successor Stateside.
This is the 500L Trekking, a pseudo-crossover version of the 500L. Is the North Americanized version of the old Multipla, in the same way that Domino’s pizza is the dougy, Americanized version of a thin crust Neapolitan Pizza Margherita. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh though. The 500L’s Euro-creds should be enough to excite those who cling to the notion that l’erba è più verde del continente. It is technically a small wagon, at least according to the EPA. It comes in brown, as well as a shade of brown that looks like coffee with a couple creamers added to it. It’s built in the old Yugo factory in Serbia (errm, that might be too European for some people). You can even get an honest-to-goodness three-pedal transmission, but it’s not very good.
For the rest of the populace that harbors no pretensions to living in the Eurozone, there are two automatic gearboxes; an ironically named “Euro Twin Clutch” transmission, and a conventional 6-speed automatic that will be available later on. Fiat couldn’t really give us a straight answer as to why they offered both, but using my mother as a sample size of one, it’s because she found the DSG in my Dad’s old Jetta 2.0T a bit odd after driving automatics all her life. Perhaps Fiat is prepared for an anti-DCT backlash and they tooled up a run of slushboxes. Maybe they couldn’t get the automatics ready in time? I’m not sure. The “Euro Twin-Clutch” is more like a Powershift than a DSG, but there are subtle hints that this transmission is not a conventional torque converter automatic. Tap the throttle after moving your foot over the from the brake and the revs rise briefly as if you were in a real manual. Shifts aren’t particularly quick or snappy, but they are fairly transparent. The DCT is a better choice than the balky, Novocaine-laced manual, and it does a decent job of keeping the 1.4L turbo engine in its proper powerband. Put aside any notions of the 500L sharing an engine with the Abarth. The acceleration of a 1.4T Dart is a better comparison here.
To its credit, the 500L seems massive inside, likely the result of its goofy looking proportions. Headroom is cavernous and the high driving position makes you feel like you’re in something much bigger than a B-segment car. Although I don’t have kids, I can see the appeal of this car for young families living in urban centers where parking space is scarce; you can easily get a couple car seats in and out of the rear seat, as well as the flotsam and jetsam that goes along with the baby, while sitting having room for groceries, dry cleaning and the pricey espresso maker you just bought at Williams-Sonoma.
Yuppie families aside, I’m not sure who will buy this thing or who it’s intended for. Fiat says it’s a way for current 500 owners to grow into the brand, but I’d imagine that a larger crossover might be a more practical option, albeit a less stylish one – and Fiat seems to be counting on the self-consciousness of their customers to keep them in the brand, constantly referring to the 500L as an “emotional purchase”.
Then again, B-segment tall wagon-thingy market isn’t very big, and the 500L isn’t exactly battling against any heavyweights. The Kia Soul isn’t a bad car, but the interior looks cheap and nasty after you get out of the Fiat, and worst of all for the Baby Bjorn crowd, it wears a Kia badge. The Nissan Cube is utterly dreadful in everyway, and the Countryman isn’t far behind in the “biggest turd on sale today” sweepstakes.
The base model “Pop” trim starts at just $20,195, while the top-spec “Lounge” comes in at $27,445. All trims come with Chrysler’s excellent UConnect system (with varying levels of interfaces, from a small headunit to a large touchscreen), and for the first few months of production, Fiat will throw in navigation, a backup camera and park assist on all trim levels above the Pop. Even if Fiat doesn’t sell a lot of these cars, it won’t matter. The 500L rides on Fiat’s new global small wide architecture, which is expected to underpin a whole bunch of new cars, from the upcoming 500X crossover to some new B-Segment Jeeps aimed at Chinese and European customers. Fiat will make their money back on the platform one way or another, the dealers will be kept happy with some additional product and everyone can go home happy.
Except me. Not until I get my Multipla. That’s a face that only a car writer (or Juke owner) could love.