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2014 Fiat 500L. (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)
2014 Fiat 500L. (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)

First Drive Fiat 500L

2014 Fiat 500L: it’s bigger and better Add to ...

Truth be told, I have a sweet spot for the Fiat 500 because of my Italian heritage. Wonderful childhood memories crammed into old Cinquecentos driving with relatives in southern Italy are etched in my mind.

But I’m not alone in my love affair. Since 2007, when the new 500 was launched, more than one million vehicles have been sold in more than 110 countries. And now, since hitting Canadian streets more than two years ago, the Fiat family grows – literally and figuratively – with the all-new 2014 Fiat 500L. It’s grown up with larger proportions – two more doors, three useable rear seats, a bigger cargo area, and extra presence on the road.

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The 2014 500L pays homage to its past, drawing inspiration from the old Fiat 600 (Seicento) Multipla. But it doesn’t just embrace its history, it also takes a bold step forward into the future.

The 500L’s design language is unmistakable – only larger (hence the “L” although the PR folk prefer to call it “loft” because of its “trendsetting interior environment”). The Fiat 500L is 27 inches longer, six inches wider, six inches taller and offers 42 per cent more space than its smaller sibling. Bigger bi-halogen projector headlamps, lower parking lamps, bulging fenders, a wraparound windshield, short hood, and large wheels make it expressive and instantly recognizable as a Fiat. You can also customize it: there are 10 exterior paint colours, nine interior colours, five wheel choices and three roof colours to choose from.

The 500L comes in four trims: Pop, Sport, Trekking and Lounge. The equipment is generous even on the base model, which comes with air conditioning, cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, remote keyless entry, power windows, locks and mirrors, hands-free communication, and a long list of safety features including seven airbags, electronic stability control, ABS, hill start assist, brake assist and a tire pressure monitoring system.

All for only $19,995. The starting price is a lot less than a Mini Cooper Countryman, one of its competitors. The Countryman starts at $25,500; an AWD version is available for $29,900. Unfortunately all-wheel-drive isn’t available on the 500L yet.

My tester is a top-trim Lounge, which costs $25,995, and adds leather bucket seats, rear park assist, a rear back-up camera, chrome body side moulding, chrome exterior mirrors and four-way power lumbar adjustments. A huge sunroof with dual-glass panels, thin pillars,and quarter glass windows at the front and rear creates an airy, spacious feeling in the cabin while providing excellent all-around visibility.

The interior is well crafted and doesn’t look cheap; it feels youthful and modern. A thick-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel features a funky squarish-circle design. The climate controls and transmission are easy to reach, but the location of the parking brake is awkward, hidden underneath the front armrest. You have to raise it every time you engage the brake.

The front seats are supportive as are the rear seats. There’s room for three adults in the back. Shoulder room is tight for three, but head- and leg-room is good. The 60/40 folding rear seats also tilt, tumble and slide for extra comfort. The cargo space is a big improvement, too. With 605 litres of space, it’s larger than some mid-size sedans.

Powering the 500L is the same engine that’s in the Abarth – a 1.4-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine that delivers 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual or six-speed twin-clutch automatic transmission are available. A conventional six-speed automatic will be offered later this year.

During our drive around Baltimore – the port city where the Fiat 500L arrives on U.S. shores after being manufactured in Kragujevac, Serbia – the acceleration off the line is brisk and the power sufficient. The 500L is agile and corners flat with little body roll despite its tall height. It’s not as jittery as the Fiat 500 either – it soaks up bumps well.

The cabin remains quiet with little noise and vibration at all speeds. And it is fuel-efficient – rated at 8.7 litres/100 km in the city and 6.0 on the highway.

On the downside is my tester’s twin-clutch automatic transmission. It held the gears too long. And under hard acceleration, the engine droned similar to a CVT transmission. I’d stick with the manual or wait until the conventional six-speed automatic gets added to the lineup.

Company officials hope the L will continue a sales streak for the brand while welcoming new buyers to the Chrysler family. “In 2011 [Fiat] outsold Mini, which is arguably the vehicle we get compared to the most. In 2012, we outsold Mini. The same so far this year. We’re tracking well ahead of Mini in our sales in 2013,” boasts Ed Broadbear, vice-president, marketing, Chrysler Canada.

“This continues to be a great source of new customers for the Chrysler family – 84 per cent of Fiat buyers have never bought a Chrysler vehicle at all. It’s a great way for us to bring new buyers into the family that otherwise we would have never seen.”

The new Fiat 500L remains true to its roots, but adds increased functionality along with Italian style and presence at an affordable price. There’s also limited-time introductory specials offering up to $2,195 of added value with items such as a no-charge Beats premium audio system and sunroof on the Lounge model.

pgentile@globeandmail.com

Tech Specs

2014 Fiat 500L

Type: Four-door, subcompact wagon/hatchback

Price range: $19,995-$25,995

Engine: 1.4-litre, DOHC, turbocharged, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 160 hp/184 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed twin-clutch transmission or six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.7 city/6.0 highway; regular

Alternatives: Mini Cooper Countryman, Kia Soul, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Ford Fiesta

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