2014 Fiat 500L Trekking review: Fat Fiat matches big Beats with tiny turbo

You'd think that a small engine would be good for fuel economy, and the EPA's estimates of 27 mpg combined, 24 mpg city, and 33 mpg highway seem promising. I averaged only 19.5 mpg during my almost 400 miles of testing. I expect that my fuel economy is usually on the low side due to the demands of testing and photographing, but to miss the EPA's low estimate by 5 mpg is a bit disappointing.

Underpinning the 500L is a MacPherson strut setup on the front axle with a torsion-bar rear end. Koni springs and dampers help keep the four corners under control, but despite the Koni name branding, the 500L's handling doesn't feel particularly inspired or sporty. The ride is smooth enough over all but the worst bumps and potholes, but it doesn't corner particularly well.

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With over 3,200 pounds to haul around, it's no surprise that the 500L's performance left us wanting. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

This is partially because the 500L weighs 3,254 pounds and partially because it feels like the center of gravity is quite high. With flat, wide seats designed for comfort and with the door and armrest being too far away to brace with an arm or knee, there's not much support for the driver who would dare try to approach the 500L's limits in a corner, but should you attempt to carry speed into a turn, you'd be met with noticeable amounts of roll and understeer.

Between the lacking acceleration and squishy handling, the 500L is not a driver's car. I also noticed that our 500L also made a lot of weird noises, clicks, whirls, and hums when simply parked without the engine running. These sounds emanated alternately from the engine bay and the rear hatch area, but I'm not sure the specific source.

Uconnect tech

Dashboard tech consists of Chrysler Uconnect tech shared as a result of the Fiat Chrysler Automotive merger.

Our example featured a 6.5-inch Uconnect navigation and infotainment system as part of optional Premier package. This touchscreen system puts navigation, hands-free calling, and a variety of digital audio sources at the driver's fingertips, but it's not the newest or most fully featured example of Uconnect that I've tested. Most obviously, the Uconnect Apps are missing from this iteration.

Navigation is powered by Garmin software, despite that you'll not see a Garmin logo anywhere in the system. This example's GPS accuracy suffered a bit, occasionally missing my position by as much as a block and leading to the system repeatedly recalculating my route. On one occasion, the system asked me to exit the highway, drive for a few miles of traffic lights and stop signs, and reenter the same highway, presumably to avoid a bit of light traffic, but ultimately costing me more time than it saved.

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The Uconnect tech package comes practically straight out of the Chrysler parts bin. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Things bode better for the telephony and audio source sides of the tech triangle. The optional Beats Audio system sounds pretty good with crisp, tight bass, stepping up the standard six-speaker premium audio stereo with a trunk-mounted subwoofer and a retune and recalibration by Dr. Dre himself. The tone sounds a bit too heavy on the low end, but tunes nicely with the three-band tone controls.

Audio sources include standard USB, Bluetooth for audio streaming and hands-free calling, and a 3.5mm auxiliary audio input. There's also satellite radio available and terrestrial radio. You'll notice a noteworthy omission from that source list: the 500L doesn't support physical CD or DVD media, lacking a drive in which to spin them.

The Beats Audio system, consequently, has been tuned to deal with compressed digital media that you'll be dealing with when Bluetooth streaming or listening to MP3s on a smartphone.

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The optional Beats Audio system has been optimized for compressed digital audio. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The 500L and its Uconnect system's last tech trick is the ability to intercept incoming text messages when paired with a smartphone via Bluetooth. The message can then be automatically read aloud using Uconnect's text to speech engine and responded to with canned responses.

Pricing and value

I can see why someone would roll off of the lot in a new 500L. It's spacious and airy (particularly when compared to the pint-size 500s on the Fiat lot). It's relatively inexpensive. Perhaps most importantly, you can't see the goofy-looking exterior from the driver's seat, so it's easy to temporarily forget how embarrassing the styling is.

The $21,395 500L Trekking sits pretty close to the top of the line, but our $26,845 as-tested model includes a few options. There's $700 for a popular equipment group that upgrades the cabin with, among other things, dual-zone climate controls. There's $350 for heated seats, which probably should be included in the $700 Trekking Premier package, which also adds the Beats Audio. The $1,100 panoramic sunroof is an option that you won't want to miss and the $450 compact spare is an option that you'll want, but hope to never need to use.

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At nearly $27,000 as tested, the 500L faces stiff competition from more powerful crossovers. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Our example also included, at no additional charge, the Premier Package: a $1,745 value that adds the Uconnect navigation, rear camera, and parking distance sensors. It's a free option for now, but could eventually drive the price of the 500L above the competition when this promotion ends.

Fully loaded up, the 500L is about as expensive as a 2014 Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring. With 184 horsepower and 185 pound-feet of twist, the Mazda is more powerful; it's better optioned at the Grand Touring level; and it's lighter on its toes. On the other hand, the 500L is more efficiently packaged, squeezing much more interior volume for people and cargo into a much smaller footprint that's easier to park.

For my $27K, I'd go with the CX-5, but your mileage may vary.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Fiat 500L
Trim Trekking
Powertrain 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, direct injection, 6-speed dual-clutch transmission, FWD
EPA fuel economy 24 mpg city, 33 mpg highway, 27 mpg combined
Observed fuel economy 19.5 mpg
Navigation Optional Uconnect 6.5-inch navigation
Bluetooth phone support Standard with hands-free calling, audio streaming, text messaging
Digital audio sources USB, Bluetooth, SD card, 3.5 mm input
Audio system Optional 6-speaker Beats Audio system with powered subwoofer
Driver aids Optional rear camera with park distance sensors
Base price $19,195
Price as tested $26,845

What you'll pay

Pricing is currently unavailable.

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Where to Buy

2014 Fiat 500L

Part Number: CNET2014 Fiat 500L

MSRP: $19,195.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

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