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2014 Fiat 500L (Chrysler)
2014 Fiat 500L (Chrysler)

2014 Fiat 500L

This peppy little hatch has some vroom with its view Add to ...

The Fiat 500L isn’t pretty. It’s not. One wag I know called it the “lardy sister” of the cute little Fiat 500 two-door hatchback. That’s going too far. This four-door hatchback 500 deserves better.

I’ll grant you that the 500L’s wheels look too small, though the 17-inchers on my top-of-the-line Lounge tester ($25,999) were a decent-enough size. Alas, the flared wheel arches help to make the wheels look like roller skates, above which is a big, tall body.

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You guessed it. This Fiat is all about packaging, about creating cabin space for four proper adults, with headroom for top hats. In back, you’ll find a two-level cargo space that is easily accessible through a wide hatch. If you want a car with a city-sized footprint with amazing space inside, look here.

Some will also say Fiat has made a few compromises up front to accommodate the North American obsession for cupholders. The two up front are located in front of the automatic shifter, tucked almost under the dashboard.

Now, Europeans think nothing of this. They believe coffee drinkers should use rest stops, which means cars designed first for Europe come with compromises that reflect the home-market culture. This is an obvious one. Remember, all 500Ls sold in North America are built by Fiat at a plant in Kragujevac, Serbia. So what do we have here? A car from an Italian brand, built in Serbia and sold through dealerships that share space with Detroit’s Chrysler Group models, Ram pickups included. Is your head spinning?

But back to the practical stuff. In the cabin, Fiat tucked the rocker switches to operate the heated seats in an odd place – outside on the top side of the front bucket frames, seats themselves which, by the way, are nicely padded and comfortable. I spent lots of time looking for the trigger to warm my seat on a chilly November morning. Hmm. Even the climate controls are located low in the front centre console. Not ideal.

That leaves Chrysler’s Uconnect display screen front and centre, high up on the dashboard where it’s in your eye line. Uconnect is the infotainment system Chrysler has installed in models from Fiat, its alliance partner. The touch screen interface is dead-simple to do hands-free calling and stream Bluetooth audio, make voice commands and punch up the touch screen radio and navigation system. All is done without the need to engage with the sort of controller devices German auto makers love.

The long-wheelbase 500, then, won’t win beauty pageants, but it just might be the city car for Canada’s handiest downtown dweller. It’s that useful. By adding two more doors to the standard 500 coupe, stretching the overall length by 660 mm and creating 152 mm more in height and width, Fiat bumped up cabin room by 42 per cent.

Just as important is the outward visibility. Big spans of glass from the A- to the D-pillars (the As frame the front window, the Ds the back) give those inside what Fiat claims is “nearly 360-degree panoramic views.” Up above, my tester had a huge dual-pane sunroof ($1,200 option) to let in the light. Few cars give you this sort of outward look in multiple directions.

My little Italian runabout proved to be frisky. Power comes from a small 1.4-litre MultiAir turbo engine rated at 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. The car is light and surprisingly fast and the six-speed dual clutch automatic ($1,450 option) is a quick shifter.

The bad news for Fiat is that in the latest Consumer Reports reliability study, the Fiat 500 ranks well below average among subcompact cars. (The 500L is not rated for reliability, given the small size of the owner sample.)

So, lardy sister? No chance. The 500L is no beauty. But it’s interesting and useful and, for some, that’ll be enough.

TECH SPECS

2014 Fiat 500L Lounge

Type: Subcompact four-door hatchback

Base price: $25,995. As tested: $30,265

Engines: 1.4-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged

Horsepower/torque: 160/184 lb-ft

Transmissions: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.0 city/6.0 highway using premium fuel.

Alternatives: Chevrolet Trax, Buick Encore, Mini Cooper Countryman, Scion xB.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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