CC Rental Car Review: Fiat 500L – The Unholy Popemobile Or Fix It Again Sergio

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In this day and age, with all cars having achieved such a high level of basic development and refinement, it’s somewhere between shocking and refreshing to drive a car that is truly sub-par, at least in its drive train. It’s sort of like a time trip back to the eighties, and since we’re mostly all about the cars of the past, ending up with a Fiat 500L as a rental should have been a blast from the past. That is,  if one really wants to relive the buzzy, jerky, turbo-laggy experience of driving a 1989 Dodge Caravan/Voyager Turbo 2.2L four, but at least that had the softening influence of an actual torque converter. With the Fiat’s six automated mechanical gears, the drive train’s simultaneous hunt for boost and a different gear creates constant turmoil; a bi-polar personality that quickly becomes tedious.

Too bad, because the 500L has some redeeming features.

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Before we get to the 500L’s sins, let’s look at its virtues. And it does have a goodly number of them; in fact, this is the kind of vehicle that rather appeals strongly to me, given that its basic package is a somewhat larger version of my xBox. The Kia Soul is probably its most direct competitor, along with the fading xB and Nissan Cube.

I like to settle into a fast, low and swoopy car for a serious drive, but for around town, I prefer boxy automotive things, tall boy wagons and such. An upright seating position, unconstrained legs, good visibility, lots of flexible seating and cargo room, and easy parking; the 500L has all of these, and then some.

Fiat 500L pope

All of which makes it quite a suitable Popemobile, as Pope Francis showed on his recent trip to the US. I’m going to assume his 500L had the Aisin 6-speed automatic and not the “Euro” twin-clutch 6-speed automated manual, like mine, as it wouldn’t be right to subject him to the 500L’s biggest sin. Absolution alone won’t fix what’s wrong under the hood here.

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The 500L’s interior design is cheerful and perky, mostly in a good way. There’s lots of contrasting colors and textures, and it never feels dull or predictable. But already here, there’s a problem: the center arm rest is absurdly high, making it almost useless. And the front seats are a bit modest in their support and dimensions.

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The view out the front, with its colonnade of pillars, reminded me of certain airplane cockpits. Visibility is good, once one gets used to the different configuration of glass and pillars. It reminds one a bit of the “dustbuster” GM vans of yore, although the windshield is not so steeply sloped.

Personal space is very generous, and being tall, that’s what I really like about these kind of cars. The lack of a console makes for a very unconstrained feeling around the legs, and the massive headroom and vertical windows does the same for the upper body. Ingress/egress is of course very easy, and makes cars like this perfect for around-town errands and such.

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The back seat is roomy too, with lots of legroom. It slides, to optimize either leg room or cargo room. I’m guessing it was pushed forward here, but my 92 year-old mom had little trouble getting in and out. And the bigger of her two walkers easily fit in the cargo area. All in all, it’s a great package. But since it’s also an automobile, and not a stationary lounge, we need to consider how it actually moves under its own power.

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The Fiat 500L, whose name makes no sense to me, since it is a totally different car from the retro-500, is powered by the same 1.4 L Multi-Air turbo four, making 160 hp and 184 lb.ft. of torque. The standard transmission in most of the models is a six-speed manual, and that would be the way to go, presumably, to have some control over the unruly little engine that has two modes: sluggish and explosive.

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That may be fun and games in the lightweight 500, but the 500L weighs some 3300 lbs, and with a pope or just some of the faithful aboard, its highly non-linear personality becomes quickly very tedious, especially since its personality is magnified by the twin-clutch automatic. Pull out into traffic, initially with a modest application of throttle, and then call for a bit more to fit into the existing pace, and the transmission bolts down a gear or two, and the engine finds its turbo boost all at the same instant, causing embarrassing wheel spin or at least a big jerk. Sorry Mom!

I tried hard to like this car, and on the initial drive to my Mom’s from the Baltimore airport, where Nextcar gave me this instead of the Cruze or Focus I was expecting, I thought I just needed a bit of getting-to-know you time with this temperamental Italian. Actually, the 500L is Serbian, built in the former Zastava plant in Kragujevac, where the Yugo was once built. But we won’t hold that against it.


Fiat 500L-Living

What’s interesting though is that the European versions have totally different engine/transmission options, as well as this long-wheelbase 7-passenger “Living” version. The base engine is the little 875 cc Twin-Air Turbo, which may sound a bit tiny for this car, but it has 105hp and a stout torque curve. With the six speed manual, it probably works well enough for the kind of situations the 500L typically finds itself in: as a family runabout, often in small-town and rural settings, where its roominess is a big plus. Sort of a modern-day 600 Multipla. Speaking of, this car should have been bestowed that name.

The 1.4 gas four is available in Europe, but in NA 95 and 120 hp versions. And of course there’s the diesels, in 95 (1.3 L) and 120 hp (1.6L) versions. Those undoubtedly are the big sellers, and with a six-speed manual, would undoubtedly make for a very different experience than what my rental had, a combination never offered outside the American market.

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This 1.4 turbo – automated six-speed combo got bad reviews from the get-go, which undoubtedly was the reason Fiat started offering the Aisin 6-speed torque-converter automatic, although it’s still not available on the base version.  Back to the experience I had: Clicking/tapping sounds from the engine after a cold start; strange whirring and other noises from the transmission, less than smooth slow-speed maneuvering, and a shift program that was obviously EPA-friendly. With the lack of a torque converter, that meant that all-too often, the 500L was chugging along several gears too high, a situation it instantly over-compensated by even modest throttle applications. This is a car difficult to drive smoothly; sorry again, Mom!

The 500L’s ride is a bit jiggly and hardly sophisticated, but that’s about to be expected. Handling is also so-so; the 500L struggles to rectify its sporty looks and pretensions with the fact that ultimately its a small people-mover. Make that small, tall people mover.

2016 Fiat 500X Lounge

The 500L has been a sales bust in the US. Fiat was hoping to get a boost from its exposure as Pope Francis’ car of choice, but if there is a boomlet, it will undoubtedly be short-lived. Fiat has shifted its efforts in pushing the 500x, a cross-over that sits on the same basic platform as the 500L, both derivations of the GM Fiat Small platform, originally a 2002 joint venture between Opel and Fiat that first saw the light of day in 2005 in the small version as the Fiat Grande Punto and has underpinned cars such as the Opel Corsa D, Alfa MiTo, Opel Adam. The  LWB version spawned the Fiat Linea, Opel Meriva B, Fiat Doblo, Ram ProMaster City. The Small Wide LWB  version is what underpins the 500L, and the 4×4 version of that platform is host to the 500X and the Jeep Renegade, and will host the 2016 Jeep Compass.

The cheapest US version of the 500X (Pop; $20,000) has the 160 hp 1.4 Multi-Air four too, but apparently only with the six-speed manual. The “Euro” six-speed twin-clutch is noticably missing, as Fiat seems to have amended for that jerky little sin. All of the higher-trim versions of the 500X have the 2.4 Tiger Shark four and the nine-speed automatic, a box that has had a bit of a rough start too.

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My trip to Baltimore was brief but lovely, but the drive up to Havre deGrace for a niece’s wedding with my mother, sister and daughter was marred a bit by iffy directions and the the 500L’s personality. The Camry and Impala I had the last two trips home were much more suitable for such an occasion, and they both got high marks. The Fiat was cheap ($28/day plus the usual add-ons), and I liked its commanding view and room, but its drive train sin was rather deadly. I  wonder if the 500L is long for this (new) world.