Despite an unfortunate reputation and an even more unfortunate issue that caused us to lemon it, my wife’s 2014 Fiat 500L has otherwise been a good car with no significant maintenance trouble. We are about to return the car, so it’s a good time to do a full review.

For the uninitiated, the 5-door 500L is built in Serbia at Fiat’s dedicated Kragujevac plant. Yes, the plant sits on the site of a former Zastava (Yugo) facility. No, that has nothing to do with the 500L as a car. It was introduced in 2012, and came to the US in 2013. US models are powered by a 1.4T MultiAir engine which is also found in the US-market 500 Abarth and the 124 Spider. In Europe, the 500L is also available as a stretched 7-seater “Living” model which looks even more grotesque.

Our car has 45,000 miles. Onto my thoughts:

Performance

On boost the power is good, but there is turbo lag for days and the rev hang lasts about one week per upshift. As with most Italian cars, you learn the car (as you should) and drive around these quirks. Boot the gas pedal to get the turbo spooled, or else suffer with 1.4L of thrashing NA engine. While in high gear, suddenly summoning power will confuse the slow-witted DDCT gearbox. What did you want?......OK, fine, downshift........turbo lag, still no power........fine, downshift again.

The front strut / rear torsion bar suspension predictably offers a decent ride up front, slightly bouncier in the rear. Fiat uses Koni selective-damping shocks, which I believe our new Compass also has. For the price, the ride feels good.

Road noise is on par with the segment, which means it’s loud. In fact, you won’t hear any wind noise over the tire roar, so turn up the beats. The Beats By Dre upgrade system will impress most non-audiophiles with thick bass as the Doc ordered. Midrange and treble are decently sharp.

My wife averages 30 mpg, which is impressive considering the aerodynamics of a small house.

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Reliability

For the purpose of this article, let’s ignore the issue that made us return the car as it is not commonly reported. Aside from that, the powertrain has been trouble-free and the interior has held up to more than three years of parenthood. Both brake light bulbs went out within the warranty period, which is anecdotally on par with other European cars. A rubber door stop fell off, and one original Mopar brake pad was defective and had scored the brake disc—no brake problems since.

The 500L gets dinged most often for transmission clutch overheating—these are mostly limited to the 2014 cars with the C635 Dual Dry Clutch Transmission. Americans drive them like slushboxes, and Fiat questionably chose to imitate a viscous torque converter’s auto-creep. We haven’t had any trouble so far, but we avoid letting the car creep.

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I do worry about the longevity of a dry clutch. Fiat wisely replaced the DDCT with a traditional Aisin 6AT in 2015, but IMO too late as the L’s reputation is already damaged. Expect the slushbox to be more durable and have much better shift response, at a small expense of fuel economy.

Practicality

Fiat really screwed up marketing this car (rather, not marketing it). This is where the 500L shines. Ingress and egress have convinced me that this is the optimal proportion that a car should have. There is no bending down or stepping up to get in—you simply slide in.

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Interior volume is mostly unmatched in its segment, but its weak points are the very Euro rear seat width (especially narrow with a child seat) and marginal rear boot depth. That said, the sliding rear seat lets you trade passenger space for cargo space, and the cargo floor can be configured in useful ways.

At 68 cu ft max with the second row stowed, few subcompacts can match the 500L’s cargo prowess.

Ergonomics, Comfort and Operation

This is probably the most entertaining topic to write about because it’s an Italian car. Assembled in Serbia, but you get the point.

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The smaller 500's interior is known for its “cheap and cheerful” theme being a little strong on the “cheap” part. The 500L’s interior is still fairly low-rent, but the designs and materials are definitely a step up and refreshingly unique.

The steering wheel is angled somewhat like a cab-over bus, typical of Italian cars. Taller drivers will find the gauges chopped off at the top. Chrysler’s clever audio controls hide on the back side of the wheel. The parking brake “handle” looks like a computer mouse—not necessarily ergonomic for larger hands, but it is unique. And Italian.

The seats are comfortable and the ribbing has a give like that of memory foam. Manual adjustment all around, but very pleasant for long drives. The rear bench sits higher for a view over the front seats. Both rows have high seat bottoms like dining chairs—the seating position is superb.

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One (err.....four) very Italian thing is the power windows—the one-touch operation is fiddly to stop partway, but at least the motors are strong. As with the 500X and Jeep Renegade, the climate controls and cupholders are positioned low and out of reach.

Chrysler’s class-leading uConnect system is here in full force (and a nice Fiat skin) and features a decent 6.5" nav screen. Reverse camera doesn’t always activate if you shift into R too soon after starting up.

Though unlikely, it is possible for the car to lock you out. With the car locked, exit from the second row—the rear door that was just used will auto-lock again. I honestly don’t see any safety benefit in this.

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Each side mirror has a clever convex section at the outer edge, enhancing the field of view.

One thing I must commend Fiat for is keeping the side turn signal repeater. This is one of the most dangerous shortcomings of US DOT automotive lighting regulations, especially for highway lane changes. Most manufacturers skimp on this for their North American models because they can.

Styling

This is subjective (I find it awkward but not particularly ugly), so I will let the pictures do the talking.

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Fun

The 500L is roughly analogous to the Mini Countryman. Both offer a fun and offbeat interpretation of affordable family transportation. In that sense, the “fun” is really in the product concept and not really in any driving dynamics. The only part of this car that likes being driven hard is the transmission (notice how I excluded the engine).

Photos

Here are some of the interesting bits and pieces of one of the most obscure modern cars sold in the United States.

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We were one of the early adopters. Taken in late 2013.
The North America version has a projector beam headlamp assembly with a matte-white “blob” ring and a ‘500’ badge. European cars get a cheaper reflector design. It’s somewhat of a styling highlight as the concentric circles and ovals reduce the front end visual mass. The repeated ovals for the smaller DRLs and turn signals also help soften the rather blunt face.
The unusually upright body and not-quite-SUV ride height provide ingress and egress that utterly demolish most other cars. Glass all-around means fantastic sight lines.

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With the optional contrasting black roof, the overall vibe is misleadingly upscale on the outside.
Beyond frequent touch points like the “squircle” leather steering wheel and the meaty shifter, the rest of the interior materials are decidedly cheap. Each door panel is a single moulding of hard plastic, with an upholstered armrest of an interesting blob shape for visual contrast. The grey dashboard trim is a soft but scratchy rubber that feels like sandpaper. Again, cheap but unusual. Door handles are also squircle-ish.
The second row sits higher than the front, providing a “stadium effect.” Two would be comfortable in the sliding AND reclining second row. Legroom is above average. Headroom destroys anything short of a bus. The D-pillar window is branded “Freeglass,” which is like Plexiglas, on which window tint will not stick. Most 500L trims come with decent factory tint. Fold-down armrest has just one pop-out cupholder.

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The Chrysler uConnect 6.5" infotainment system is an interior highlight and a godsend from FCA to compensate for Fiat’s ergonomic quirks. This was one of the rare times when it got truly confused. The gauges/nav surround is a velvety rubber finish, well-known in Ferrari interiors for ageing poorly.
Another highlight of the 500L’s interior that I will miss: The versatile tri-level front storage area. A small covered bin up top, an open shelf in the middle and the main glove compartment below. Neither door can be locked.
The gauge cluster has an intriguing design. Thick, stylised soft-white illuminated rings are overlaid with dark numbers and hashes. The needles glow red only at the tip, giving a floating illusion. The driver info display lacks colour, but it’s nicely configurable. Taller folk will find the top of the gauges obscured by the Italian steering wheel placement.

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The shifter came with a tag that proclaimed “Euro Twin-Clutch Transmission,” marketing speak for the Fiat Powertrain Technologies C635 DDCT. Again, the MY2015+ slushbox is better. The lever is wrapped in a nice boot capped by a fancy “500” button. Italian cars get some things wrong, but what they get right is just so good. And then you have the A/C controls and cupholders that are placed very low, requiring a reach to use.
The rear seats even fold in an unusual manner. The seat back folds down, but the entire seat base tilts forward. A single gas strut holds the stowed seat in this position. Not sure this does anything amazing for cargo room, but I suppose it ekes out that last cubic foot or so.
Removing the insulating shroud (surprisingly heavy and partially shown on the floor here), Fiat’s innovative MultiAir head is exposed. Looks like a coil-on-plug setup, too. The engine is a 1.4T paired to FPT’s infamous C635 DDCT.

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I think all brands of the Fiat Group (the pre-FCA brands) provide an original paint code label for the owner’s convenience. Chrysler brands, apparently, did not inherit this feature.
The boot is shallow—most strollers require some shoehorning to fit. But that doesn’t mean it can’t take 150+ pounds of radio equipment. Note the oddly stepped load height and the useless chrome guard that doesn’t even wrap around the bumper edge. Floor board can be placed at two different heights and has a weight limit of 200 pounds in the elevated position. No spare tire, just a can of goop.
Fiat marketed this as a “glass A-pillar,” but this is simply a rearward-set A-pillar with an extra “zero pillar” up front to mount the windscreen glass. In between are small windows providing peripheral sight lines. Not a pretty solution—in fact, it is the most awkward styling element of the 500L. But it keeps the A-pillars short and upright, improving visibility.

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The rear-view parking camera is cleverly hidden within the rear “500L” logo.
Rear doors are large, but they open wide for easy access. There are no interior door lock controls in the second row—pull twice to exit.
Taillamp pattern is also quite bold.

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MY2018 will see a facelifted 500L in Europe, where the model does sell in decent numbers. FCA have not disclosed whether the US will see a 2018 500L—perhaps the poor sales performance leaves them hesitant. Whatever happens, the Kragujevac plant really needs more models to keep the lights on.

Hope you found this useful, and feel free to AMA. Have a great weekend!