By Derek Price
CNHI News Service
— This is a car that can't be judged by the pictures.
If you haven't seen it in person, you might assume the Fiat 500L is an ever-so-slightly larger version of the Fiat 500, the cute, lovable Italian car that's one of the smallest vehicles on the road.
But that one letter makes a huge difference.
The 500L is not only a whole lot bigger than the 500 — six inches wider, six inches higher and a whopping 27 inches longer — but it drives like a dramatically different vehicle, more like a van than a car.
Part of that feeling comes from the sheer amount of volume inside. The 500L has 42 percent more interior space than the ordinary 500, enough to be classified as a "large car" according to the federal government, yet its styling makes it look deceptively small. It has the same adorable puppy-dog face as its compact sibling.
The bigger size makes it eminently more practical, starting with the fact that the 500L actually has back doors, unlike the two-door 500. The extra width and height makes the cabin feel spacious and airy, and the extra length gives it a surprising amount of cargo space — enough for Fiat to claim best-in-class honors.
The downside of all that space is that the 500L loses some of the driving fun of the 500, which is one of its best attributes. With a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine, the 500L is not quite as zippy as the 500 because of its added heft and size.
Still, by large-car standards, it's fun to drive, with a firm, very European-feeling suspension that nicely transmits texture from the road.
Fiat could do a couple of things to improve it. One is shorten the throw of its manual transmission, which feels a bit long and truck-like for an Italian car. The other is to tighten up the feel of some of its dials on the dash, a picky thing that some of its competitors do a better job of.
Where the 500L excels is in styling, both inside and out. The spunky exterior looks much better than the squared-off, form-follows-function utilitarian boxes that have been popularized in recent years, and its two-tone interior is as handsome as anything on the market.
I also like the unique way Fiat treats the glass layout on this car. It's almost like it has two small A pillars up front and glass that nearly wraps all the way around the back of the car, giving great visibility in all directions and lots of light streaming into the cabin. Fiat calls it a loft-like design.
Pricing starts around $19,000, which might be the best thing of all about this car. It seems like a nice fit for young families who need a practical car but also want good Italian looks and a European driving feel — a rare mixture in this price class.
Derek Price is an independent automotive columnist. Reach him at email@example.com.