By Joe Wiesenfelder on Wed Nov 28 01:28:00 GMT-06:00 2012
Like Mini before it, Fiat has produced a larger version of its initial tiny car, the 500. But rather than stretch the little 500 as Mini did with its Cooper, resulting in the Clubman, Fiat has jumped right into the subcompact-SUV class alongside the recently released Mini Countryman. The 500L is actually more than 5 inches longer and about 4 inches taller than the Countryman.
If you like the looks of the 500, you'll probably like the 500L, too. If you don't like the 500, well, you certainly won't like the L, because there's more of it.
It's unmistakably a Fiat, though the sloping rear end is replaced by a modestly more conventional, space-efficient slope. The Trekking trim level, which makes its debut at this show, joins the Pop, Easy and Lounge trims, bringing a butched-up look with the time-tested gray rocker panels, wheel arches, lower bumper, etc., we've seen for years. It doesn't have higher ground clearance than the other trims, however.
The 500L's blacked-out roof pillars catch the eye, especially when supporting a body- or contrasting-color roof. But it's the split A-pillar that defines this model. Basically two pillars with a sizable window between them; it's odd looking from the outside and disconcerting from the inside, but I can't tell if it would be any more obstructive than some of the other models on the market whose A-pillars extend far ahead of the driver.
The dashboard itself is rather high, as well. Like the 500, the L has plenty of front-seat headroom — noticeably more than the Countryman. Legroom is also good. The Lounge trim level is the highest, and its interior quality impressed me. There's less of the plastic stuff that's found in the 500 and more low-gloss surfaces, including some soft-touch materials. The door armrests could be softer, but the interior door handles look and feel like real aluminum.
For upholstery, buyers can choose among seven fabric and two leather options. The showcars' optional leather looks good, and I give Fiat a lot of credit for its daring use of color. Also notable is the uniquely gigantic shift knob for the standard six-speed manual transmission.
The optional navigation system is in its proper place in the dashboard; I don't object to the regular 500's use of an aftermarket mobile navigation unit — just its mounting position atop the dashboard.
The backseat headroom is pretty good unless you lean back a bit, where taller passengers will find it a bit snug. By the numbers, the L has less legroom than the Countryman and even the Clubman, but you'd never know it. Not only did I find plenty of legroom, but my knees weren't raised uncomfortably. Views are good for passengers back here, and the enormous moonroof gives an airy feel. Unfortunately, it has a mesh shade that won't block all sunlight.
One of the odd aspects is the folding rear seats. After the 60/40-split backrests fold flat, the seats then tumble forward 90 degrees; it's something, but seats that fold flat and flush with the cargo floor are best. On the upside, the cargo floor is just a couple feet off the ground, and a movable panel can serve as a shelf or cargo cover.
On first look, I like the 500L — more than the regular 500. For me, the opposite was true when Mini upsized its iconic mini car.
Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a Cars.com launch veteran, leads the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe