“Cheap and cheerful.” It’s a phrase the Brit mags like to use all the time to describe poverty-priced cars that attempt to use design and color to mask their humble aspirations. Think Scion xB compared to Toyota Tercel — but nobody does the C&C music factory like the Europeans. The original Twingo set the template, but it’s had many a riff played on it since then.
Now we have a cheap-and-cheerful from a Euro manufacturer, built in Serbia, with as much design and flair as you can stand. Whether it’s the worst car for sale in America or one of the best depends entirely on how cheerful you need your cheap to be.
We’re reviewing a Kia Soul in these pages today, so it was both lucky and good than I rented one for last weekend’s WRL race at Texas World Speedway. I have )plenty of experience driving a Kia Soul in Houston. No, wait, I meant to post this review, the other one is fiction. In any event, the Soul also pretends to be cheap-and-cheerful. I say “pretends” because it isn’t really that cheap anymore and it’s approaching respectability in its design and execution. The deal Kia is currently making with the American public is this: you pay about what you’d pay for a Honda, give or take a bit, and we’ll throw in some warranty and some Audi-derived flair to help you get over the brand stigma. (Yes, I know who designs Kias now — Peter Schreyer.)
The 500L, on the other hand — well, when I first sat in the thing at the Hertz office I couldn’t believe what an utter piece of shit it was. Like a Toyota Corolla and about everything else nowadays, it has a three-rotating-ring climate control system. Unlike with the Toyota, however, in this car the rings wobble. They’re so loose I worried that they would fall off. Adjusting the driver’s seat gave me another case of the wobbles — the hollow-molded handles to adjust the seatback and height gave no sensation of being firmly attached to anything at all. The handbrake was bizarrely shaped and the flash lines from the plastic molding were sharply evident. There are no manual door lock actuators on the doors themselves. That would cost money. The shifter found “D” with a very Italian vagueness.
And then the engine quit.
For at least five seconds, I just sat there with my mouth open. As someone who races a variety of Lemons-spec cars across the country and who once owned a MA href=”http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/09/the-red-marquis-the-redheaded-girl-and-the-red-mist/”>1980 Mercury Marquis, I am no stranger to the phenomenon known as “failure to proceed”, but in a 2014-model automobile with 4000 miles on the clock?
I re-selected Park, twisted the switchblade key in the ignition, and the car caught before dying yet again!
A third time was the charm, but throughout the weekend, the Fiat would often indicate it’s reluctance to run in the ninety-five-degree Texas weather by cutting out once or twice when started cold, always starting by the third try. Okay. We’re rolling. Time to take a look around.
Although the 500L shares nothing with the infamous Multipla wide-body CUV, the long dashboard, multiple fishbowl windows in front of the driver, and the general turret-toppedness of the thing make it hard to believe such is the case. Really, it’s a relative of the upcoming Renegade. Think Caliber to the Patriot and you’ll have the idea, sort of. There’s a lot of glass, some of it wavy, and it’s all pretty far away from you in all directions. You want Euro? You got it. This is how our nominal superiors on the Continent imagine high-seat cars, as compared to something like a modern Tahoe where you get the cockpit of an Impala mounted to the frame of an Iowa-class in an arrangement that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Star Destroyer.
I slapped the thing into Drive again and noticed that, as is also a Euro market practice, the red-LCD display between the dials showed which gear I’d selected. This is a nice feature, one I remember with pleasure from my Phaetons. You get “D4″ or “D6″ or “D1″ instead of “D”. If you don’t like being surprised by shifting, it’s good to have. It’s also useful because when you’re low-speed cruising through town you can accurately estimate whether you’ll need to press for kickdown in order to make a move in traffic. Already in third? Probably okay. If the transmission has drifted up to fifth, you’d better ask for a shift.
Particularly if, as is the case here, you’re asking 1.4L of light-pressured turbocharged four-cylinder to motivate 3,203 pounds with just 160 horsepower. The Fiat 500L will never be confused with an acceptably rapid automobile and such is its lassitude that even I, who just got a six-point speeding ticket in another turbocharged Euro-mobile last week, frequently found myself dawdling along at 65mph on the 75mph Texas freeways. It’s clearly never in a hurry. The good news is that the engine’s relatively flat torque curve approximates a big-cube four-banger like the Chrysler 2.4 pretty well and it’s never dangerous in a merging situation. Hilariously, the twin-clutch transmission allows the thing to “brap” a bit when it’s in a hurry, just like a GTI. Again, you want Euro, you got it.
How’s it handle? It definitely does. My plans to take it around Texas World Speedway were canceled because my flight arrived late-ish and therefore I couldn’t get both this and the car I was actually going to race around the course in the allotted time, but hey, on the street it’s dynamically competent. To some degree, the 500L’s abilities in the steer-stop department are masked by the form factor and the seating. If you had a car that put up these same numbers but sat you on the ground in the manner of, say, a previous-generation Civic, you’d be quite pleased. It’s just that being up in the fishbowl makes the whole enterprise seem a bit stupid. I’m pretty sure this thing would dust most CUVs around a track, if you really wanted to make it happen.
As befits a “Fiatsler” product, the 500L has a uConnect center screen. Right now, if you buy one from dealer stock, you’ll get a better uConnect than this one, free of charge, and it will include navigation. This one’s okay, however, offering the same virtues you get in a 300C. (Incidentally, I am the only major TTAC contributor who doesn’t think uConnect is better than MyFordTouch, so take this with a grain of salt.) It was a little picky about reconnecting to my Galaxy upon startup, but overall the Bluetooth integration was solid. The sound quality was less so. Not a lot of juice in the amp.
Cargo and passenger space, as you’d expect, is excellent and from my experience it matches what’s available elsewhere in the segment. The rear seats are as comfortable as the fronts, which is to say pretty good and supportive over long drives. I covered nearly 800 miles in three days during my drive, having to fold my fractured frame into a couple of Kirkey race seats in the intervals between trips, and I was never in any pain or discomfort. It’s a good way to travel. The A/C, despite feeling desperately flimsy in operation, was up to the demands of cooling this very glazing-intensive car in Texas heat.
Overall, the 500L appears to be a very nice design put together in completely slipshod fashion. I was prepared to give it a bit of a diss-track review. The lousy quality and will-it-run business made it easily the worst car I’ve rented this year or last, in plain functional terms. As I was preparing my notes, however, I took the time to build my test vehicle in FIAT’s configuator.
This, as the say, changed everything.
Equipped as my “Easy” DCT model was, net price before discounts was $21,095. Which means out the door for under twenty grand. Were I willing to take a six-speed manual transmission over the DCT — would I be? You think so? — the net-net would be mid-nineteen grand. Compare that to a Honda CR-V EX with similar equipment at $25,320 or a Ford Escape at what is probably, given that company’s current pricing strategy, $118,255. For that money, I’d get navigation and a suite of other upgrades if I took it from dealer stock, which makes the real price gap between this and the competition an easy seven grand.
At that price, I’ve changed my mind. If you can trade build quality away for a double helping of design whimsy, and you’d like to save something like thirty percent of the purchase price, the 500L is recommended with reservations. And those reservations are: you didn’t pay Honda money, it doesn’t look like the God-awful CR-V, don’t expect it to run forever with no problems. You say you want a Euro car? You got it. Just remember that it’s not Japanese.