Far different from the fetching little Fiat 500 hatchback coupe and sliding-roof convertible, the Fiat 500L is a tall compact wagon. Launched as a 2014 model, it’s sometimes considered a five-door hatchback, with a design and character all its own. A number of modifications and updates have taken place for the 2018 model year.
Front and rear fascias have been redesigned on the 2018 Fiat 500L, with updated wheels, bodyside moldings, and daytime running lights installed. A rearview camera is now standard.
Inside is a new digital instrument cluster. Fiat has rearranged the central console, fir 2018m along with revising the gearshift and parking brake levers. The steering wheel is new, including auxiliary controls, and ambient LEDs illuminate the cabin. An updated Uconnect 4 infotainment system with 7.0-inch touchscreen is newly standard. So are Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity.
Fiat offers three 500L trim levels: base Pop, midlevel rugged-look Trekking, and high-end Lounge.
All use a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine, developing 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. All use a 6-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive.
Manufactured in Serbia, the 500L boasts abundant interior room, augmented by tall-wagon practicality. Each wagon gets a proper group of standard features, including steering-wheel controls, cruise control, air conditioning, a sliding rear seat, and a tilting/telescopic steering column.
The most distinctive 500L is the Trekking edition, featuring design details that suggest rugged off-roading, even if actual beyond-pavement touring isn’t an option. Flared wheel wells wrap around 17-inch wheels, and the upholstery is accented in brown and black.
Except for the newly standard rearview camera, advanced electronic safety systems are absent, though rear parking sensors are optional. At least, outward visibility is outstanding through three big side windows.
The optional dual-pane sunroof can flood the cabin with brightness.
In testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the 500L earned Good crashworthiness ratings, except for a Poor score in the tough small-overlap frontal crash test.
Plenty of options are available, including a contrasting-color roof, with many grouped into collections of common options at a discounted price.
500L Pop ($20,995) comes with a rearview camera, 16-inch alloy wheels, cloth upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 4.7-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth, and six-speaker audio with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
500L Trekking ($23,325) adds rugged-look appearance details including special front/rear fascias and fender moldings, and a two-tone brown/black interior. Also standard are 17-inch wheels, leather-trimmed low-back seats, heated front seats, foglamps, ambient LED lighting, Beats premium audio, satellite radio, and Uconnect 4 with a 7.0-inch touchscreen.
500L Lounge ($23,895) adds dual-zone automatic climate control, machined aluminum 17-inch wheels, power-foldaway mirrors, rear park assist, and driver’s power lumbar adjustment.
Unconventional may be the mildest way to describe the 500L, which bears no discernible resemblance to the cuddly little Fiat 500 hatchback. Mild front/rear restyling for 2018 updated the design somewhat, but the overall shape lacks cohesiveness.
Tall and awkward-lookingh, the 500L boasts plenty of glass for easy visibility. But this wagon’s unorthodox roofline and blunt front end don’t necessarily draw praise from all quarters. The Trekking adds several distinctive details, led by black lower sill and wheel-arch accent moldings.
A tall roofline gives the 500L plenty of head clearance and shoulder space for four adults, but five will be less comfortable. Of course, the 500L boasts 42 percent more total interior volume than the tiny 500 hatchback, which barely manages four people.
While the 500L’s exterior may look startling, its cabin is ordinary. In addition to large physical knobs, the dashboard has gained a bigger (7.0-inch) touchscreen for 2018. Cupholders and the gearshift lever occupy different positions on the reworked console. Navigation, standard in upper trim levels, might be helpful, but it’s a primitive system.
Front seats are short on comfort, with hard seat cushions. The driving position is awkward. The steering wheel is relatively horizontal. Drivers might have trouble attaining a comfortable position, without impeding the ability to see the instruments. Outward visibility excels, due to the abundant glass area.
Second-row occupants sit higher off the floor than those up front. Legroom is abundant for most riders, and adequate for taller folks. Cushioning is firm, but the back seat reclines. It also slides forward and back, and can tumble forward.
Two roller suitcases fit into the cargo hold, whose volume totals 22.4 cubic feet. Folding the rear seatbacks expands space to 68 cubic feet. A floor panel can slide into upper side rails to provide a hidden compartment. Elsewhere in the cabin, storage space is limited.
Ride comfort is a benefit. On patchy, potholed urban streets, the 500L is nearly as smooth-riding as, say, a Kia Soul. Koni shock absorbers effectively dampen the harsher ride motions.
Fiat’s 500L also handles well, holding the road admirably. Even at highway speeds, it responds promptly and predictably to steering-wheel actions. Handling prowess might remind drivers of Fiat’s illustrious Italian heritage â€“ but only slightly.
Performance is significantly less satisfying. A simple shortage of power overwhelms the Fiat 500L engine, despite its turbocharging and seemingly ample torque output. Not only is the wagon comparatively tall and heavy, its blunt front end is practically the opposite of aerodynamic. When accelerating to pass on the highway, entering a freeway, or coping with swift-moving traffic, the driver has to extract every morsel of power to get the job done.
Fuel economy is only average, at best. The 500L is EPA-rated at 22/30 mpg City/Highway, or 25 mpg Combined. In an era when the Honda Fit is estimated around 10 mpg higher, a 25-mpg Combined rating fails to impress.
The Fiat 500L offers a good value in terms of features. It’s a quirky car and doesn’t reach the bar set by comparable small wagons and hatchbacks. Some folks will adore it, but many may want to steer clear.
Driving impressions by The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.