By Eric Peters
If you ever wanted to buy a new Fiat — without going to Italy — this may be your last chance.
Fiat isn’t doing well because small cars (which is all Fiat sells) aren’t doing well.
It’s not because they are bad cars. Honda — as blue-chip a brand as there is — just canceled the two-door Civic, to give you some sense of how tough times are for small cars.
And Fiat is one of the very few brands still selling a small wagon, the 500L.
What It Is
The 500L is a compact, five-door wagon — a type of vehicle that’s getting scarce because of American tastes — which incline toward crossovers.
Prices start at $22,500 for the base Pop trim; a top-of-the-line Lounge stickers for $24,645.
All come with the same turbocharged, 1.4-liter, four-cylinder engine paired with a six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel drive.
A slight price bump.
Last year’s 500 — which is the same as this year’s — stickered for $21,910 to start. That’s $590 less than the same thing this year.
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It has crossover space — without the height.
It has subcompact length — midsize legroom (both rows).
If you dislike driver “assistance” tech, you’ll like this one … because it hasn’t got any.
What’s Not So Good
The back seats fold down — but not all the way flat.
The turbocharged engine wants premium gas.
Fiat may soon be scarce.
Under the Hood,
As with many current small cars, the 500L comes with a very small engine — just 1.4 liters. But it makes the power of a larger engine — 160 horsepower — because of the turbocharger that’s bolted to it.
Interestingly, this engine is the optional high-performance engine that was available in the 500L’s two-door stablemate, the 500 — Abarth version. It’s interesting because the 500L is not marketed as a performance car. This probably explains the absence of the Abarth’s boomy, open-piped exhaust system.
But the performance is there.
The L can get to 60 mph in under eight seconds, a very solid time for this class and type of car.
Another item you may appreciate is the six-speed automatic transmission that’s paired with the 1.4-liter engine — rather than the now-common continuously variable automatic. It’s a less thrashy — and less noisy — type of transmission, with traditional changes through the gears as you go, rather than the continuously variable transmission’s sometimes weird forward surge, without any shifting at all.
On the Road
If you don’t like to be “assisted” by your car, then the 500L is a car you’ll probably be interested in. It has no “advanced” — as they’re always styled — “driver assists,” such as lane keep assist or steering assist or brake assist.
The L was designed more than six years ago, when only a handful of high-end cars had such tech. Since it hasn’t been changed much since 2014, it is still pretty much the same to drive today as it was in 2014.
Which means it’s up to you to keep in its lane, steer it — and brake when the need arises.
Arguably, this makes for a safer drive; the driver pays more attention — because he’s not relying on “assists” to drive the car for him.
Also of assistance is the surround-view greenhouse glass and the comparatively short front and rear overhangs; most of the car is between the front and rear axles — so you have a better view as well as better maneuverability.
The main thing missing is the option to shift for yourself, which would add a dose of fun to this practical little car.
At the Curb
This is a small car — only 167 inches end to end.
To get a sense of just how small that is, a Honda Civic sedan — a “compact” car — is 182.7 inches end to end.
But unlike a not-so-small sedan like the Civic, the Fiat has lots of room for things as well as passengers. With its back seats up, the 500L has 22.4 cubic feet of space versus 15.1 in the Civic’s trunk — which can’t be increased by folding it down (because it doesn’t).
While the Fiat’s back seats don’t fold flat, they do fold down — almost tripling the space for stuff to 68 cubic feet. There is also a smartly designed storage rack system that makes even more use of the available space.
You can, of course, find similar space for stuff in small crossovers — like the Honda HR-V, for instance. But they ride higher (6.7 inches off the ground for the HR-V versus 4.7 inches for the 500L).
Not everyone wants to be up in the air.
The Fiat also offers fun options, such as two-tone paint schemes and body-colored interior trim pieces (as in the 500 two-door) that perk up the attitude of this ride.
All trims come standard with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto — which a surprising number of higher-priced cars with lots of “advanced driver assistance” features either charge extra for or don’t offer at all.
The Bottom Line
It isn’t slow — and it isn’t high. It may also not be here for much longer — so if you’re interested, better hurry!
Eric’s new book, “Don’t Get Taken for a Ride!” is available now. To find out more about Eric and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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