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

Roadshow Editors' Rating

5.4 Overall
  • Performance 6
  • Features 5
  • Design 5.5
  • Media 5

The Good The 2014 Fiat 500L boasts a lot of volume for passengers and cargo, while maintaining a relatively small, parkable footprint. Optional Uconnect system checks the right tech boxes and is, for now, a no-cost option. The cabin has good 360-degree visibility, and the sunroof is brilliant.

The Bad The Uconnect navigation system can be a bit inaccurate. The small engine feels slightly underpowered for a vehicle of this size. The DCT automatic transmission can be a bit jerky.

The Bottom Line Though big for a Fiat model, the 2014 Fiat 500L is still small for a wagon or crossover that boasts so much interior volume. However, limited tech and performance have us reconsidering the competition.

The "L" in 2014 Fiat 500L Trekking stands for "large." The small wagon, as it is classified by the EPA, is wider, longer, and taller than the coupes and cabriolets that share the 500 moniker. Bulbous, ostentatiously colored Giallo yellow, and awkwardly stretching the 500's cutesy style over a much larger frame, it was a bit embarrassing to be seen behind the wheel of this Fat Fiat.

Being larger means that the 500L also boasts better interior volume than any other North American Fiat model, so there's more room for people and stuff. While it's not saying much to compare the 500L to the pint-size 500 and 500C, the L also bests the capacity of many small crossovers with larger curbside footprints. Tumble & slide rear seats that flip out of the way with the tug of a lever make accessing that space easy when you need to load bulky items into its rear hatch.

The 500L is so spacious that I couldn't comfortably rest my left elbow on the door armrest from the driver's seat without leaning awkwardly. The L is gratuitous with its head room and there's plentiful legroom on the second row.

Sizing up the 500L

Dimension 2014 Fiat 500L 2014 Mazda CX-5 2013 Scion xB 2014 Fiat 500 coupe
Overall height (inches) 65.7 65.7 63.4 59.8
Overall length (inches) 167.3 179.3 168.1 139.6
Wheelbase (inches) 102.8 106.3 102.4 90.6
Track (inches) 59.1 62.5 60 55.4
Interior volume (cu. feet) 122 103.8 110.9 85.1

The 500L's cabin is also quite airy. Generous greenhouse glass lets a lot of light into the cabin, even if you don't have the optional panoramic moonroof added. (That $1,100 option is one of the L's best features and a much better use of the rooftop real estate than the Mini-eque white Accent Roof panel, so you really should have it equipped.)

Our Trekking model features "sporty" gray body panels meant to evoke an off-road-ready look despite that all currently available 500L models are equipped with "Normal Duty" suspensions, and none are available with all-wheel drive.

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The 500L is large for a vehicle wearing a Fiat badge, but it's small compared to its competitors. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Inside the 500L isn't terrible looking, particularly with our optional Marrone brown trim upgrade, but cabin feels about as cheap as the smaller 500 did. But with more surface area to work with, the cheapness is much more evident on the 500L. Even with the Trekking model's leather-wrapped steering wheel, shift knob, and door trim, the cabin feels low budget.

On the bright side, despite being significantly larger than the 500, the 500L still has a relatively small footprint, making it fairly easy to park. 360-degree visibility is quite good thanks to the generous glass, but I was grateful for the extra piece of mind afforded by the optional rear camera and parking distance sensors of our example's Premier package.

The camera and sensors are where the 500L's driver-aid tech ends. There's no blind-spot monitoring and no rear cross traffic alert when reversing. Its competitors, on the other hand, offer much better tech in this respect.

Big car, small engine

The 2014 500L rolls along at a curb weight that's about 777 pounds more than the 2014 Fiat 500 Turbo. Despite being significantly heavier, the L is powered by the same 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged engine that you'll find under the hood of the 500 Turbo and the Abarth 500, but with a slightly different tune. This does not bode well for performance.

That engine is mated to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Our example was equipped with the latter, a $1,350 option.

The powertrain's output is stated at 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. Performance is merely OK. There's enough torque to get the 500L moving, and over flat terrain its acceleration isn't bad at all. However, the 500L doesn't like steep hills, even with just one passenger and no cargo. I'd hate to have to drive this thing up one of San Francisco's notoriously steep grades when it's loaded with four adults and their cargo.

I did like the mechanical induction noise at of the 1.4-liter at idle and the slight whistle of the turbocharger under moderate acceleration, but the four-banger just doesn't sound great when it's working hard -- and in a vehicle this big, it's always working hard.

The "Euro Twin Clutch" transmission is a fairly smooth gearbox under most circumstances, but not the best DCT that I've tested. A Hill Start brake assist feature keeps the 500L from rolling backward on steep inclines, but on shallow slopes or over uneven roads, the vehicle can roll backward slightly when the driver's foot moves from the brake to the gas. There's only an instant of free rolling while gearbox's clutch engages, but that moment can be disconcerting. In stop-and-go traffic, the turbocharged 1.4 and the DCT can feel a bit jerky, but that smooths out once you get rolling.

The DCT features a manual-shift mode (although no paddle shifters), but rapid acceleration is largely out of the question. Driving the 500L then becomes an exercise in forward planning to conserve momentum and building revs and velocity well in advance of a planned pass.

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

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