The 2017 Fiat 500L may share a name with most of the rest of the Fiat range, but it’s actually an entirely different vehicle underneath. Depending on your point of view, it’s a wagon or a tall five-door hatchback that shares only an engine with the 500 city car or the 500X crossover utility vehicle. For 2017, the trim levels on the 500L have been simplified to a base Pop, the outdoorsy Trekking, and a fully featured Lounge version.
Other changes this year include a 6-speed automatic as the sole transmission, and more features at each trim level. But the 500L has never really made its mark against other small but roomy vehicles like the Honda Fit, Kia Soul, and Mini Clubman (which is now a proper wagon, at last). Its overall score of 4.2 is among the lowest of all cars that we’ve rated. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
For one thing, it’s an ungainly and awkward-looking vehicle with several design strikes against it. The bulldog’s blunt nose, with tiered headlamps and three different sections to its horizontal grille—not to mention a roofline that zigs and zags—make it an eye-of-the-beholder choice. You can decide if the lines work for you.
The interior of the 500L works better, because it takes fewer risks. It’s organized around a few oval-shaped controls, a small-ish central touchscreen, and lots of big round knobs. On the Trekking version, distinctive trim alludes to off-roading, with brown-and-black accents inside, plus flared wheel wells and 17-inch wheels to distinguish it from the outside.
Powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-4 rated at 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, the 500L taxes its powertrain more than the smaller 500 does with the same engine. Power is sent to the front wheels only; if you want all-wheel drive, you’ll have to step up to the 500X crossover, which has less interior volume. This year, only a 6-speed automatic transmission is available; the manual gearbox has been dropped, and a much-reviled 6-speed dual-clutch automatic was thankfully ushered out last year. Gas mileage is adequate, but not stellar: the 500L earns estimated ratings of 22 mpg city, 30 highway, 25 combined.
Rear seats better than fronts
Drivers will notice the steering wheel sits at a more horizontal, bus-driver angle than in most cars, which is quintessentially Fiat. That can make it hard to find the right driving position while keeping the gauges in view. It can be an awkward stretch to reach the pedals, and the front seats aren’t very comfortable. The bottom cushions are rather hard, and they’re rounded off in the European idiom, for easier pedal access—not squared off, for better leg support, as most American drivers expect.
The second row is better. The rear seats are even higher than the fronts, and leg room is a little more than adequate. The rear seats are as firm, but they recline, as well as slide and tumble (on some models) so the ratio of cargo to passenger space can change as required. It’s the closest any other car comes to the Honda Fit “Magic Seat,” though we doubt many pragmatic Fit buyers will cross-shop this Fiat.
In-car storage space is limited. Two small glove boxes are split by a shallow tray, and door pockets make up most of the rest of the available niches. A couple of large rolling bags will fit in the cargo area, which has a floor panel that slides into side rails for dual-level storage.
Competent on the road
Despite its lack of power, the 500L is fully competent in handling and roadholding, as you might hope in an Italian car. The simple strut-and-twist-beam rear suspension works well enough. In U.S. models, Fiat has fitted Koni shock absorbers, chosen to damp some of the harsher ride motions that choppy roads can toss up. The 500L is in fine tune, more accommodating than the Countryman, and almost as good at damping out city bumps as the Soul. It responds well at highway speeds too, with fluid steering and good stability.
In some dimensions, interior room isn’t quite as large as expected, but its high roof gives the 500L very good head and shoulder room for all passengers. Like most small wagons, it’s best for four adults, with five proving uncomfortable at best, impossible if they’re large. But you won’t fit four larger adults into the city-sized Fiat 500 at all; the 500L is 27.7 inches longer and 6 inches wider, with 42 percent more interior volume.
The 500L is outfitted with seven standard airbags, stability control, and active headrests. It was an IIHS Top Safety Pick when it launched four years ago, but it lost that designation after a “Poor” rating on the tough small-overlap frontal crash. The NHTSA hasn’t tested the 500L at all. A rearview camera is available, along with rear parking sensors. One major plus: the outward visibility is great—and the dual-pane sunroof option, about the size of a double-hung window, floods the cabin with sunlight.
Simplified lineup, still lots of choices
For 2017, the 500L comes in Pop, Trekking, and Lounge models. All versions include air conditioning, cruise control, a trip computer, steering-wheel controls, tilt/telescopic steering, and a multi-position cargo-area panel. Six-speaker sound is also included, with the Uconnect 5.0 system, offering a 5.0-inch touch screen, voice commands for the radio, hands-free calling, Bluetooth audio streaming, and a media hub with USB and aux-in ports.
The Trekking models add lots of “rugged” appearance extras, including special wheel moldings, larger 17-inch wheels, fog lamps, and two-piece front and rear fascias, plus a unique-to-the-model, two-tone black/brown interior with low-back bucket seats. Finally, top-level Lounge models include power heated leather front seats, driver lumbar adjustment, split-folding rear seatbacks with fore-aft adjustment (and recline/tumble), fog lamps, and a dual-zone climate control system.
Fiat offers customization options familiar to Mini shoppers, including a roof in contrasting colors and various wheels. Each trim level has a handful of available “Collections,” which bundle options like nav, parking sensors, the sunroof, a rearview camera, and satellite radio at a slight discount. A Beats Audio system is also available, and the Urbana Appearance Package for the Trekking model adds black wheels, trim, and accents.
An available Uconnect 6.5 system provides a larger 6.5-inch screen, an SD card slot, text-message readback, and dealer-programmed navigation. The navigation is rudimentary, the screen remains small, and the maps themselves are hard to scale quickly. A good smartphone and a suction-cup mount is a better solution.