It took BMW's Mini nine years to birth a four-door sibling to the Cooper hatchback in the Countryman, part of an Octomom-like propagation that dealt us two- and four-seat convertibles, a coupe, a panel wagon, two more hatchbacks, an electric-car test program and the Countryman.
Chrysler-Fiat is on its way there. The 2014 Fiat 500L, on sale this weekend, is a larger four-door version of the original 500 — which, in just the second model year since the company's U.S. return, has already spawned a convertible 500C, an all-electric 500e and now the four-door 500L.
Unlike the Minis, which share the same interior and (more or less) driving experience, the 500L is significantly different inside and on the road compared to its two-door sibling.
For starters, Fiat says the L rides the automaker's global "small wide" architecture, an all-new platform whose wheelbase is more than a foot longer than the 500's. The 500L is more than 2 feet longer than the regular 500 and nearly 6 inches wider and taller, too. The interior bears little resemblance to the 500. Phil Jansen, the 500L's vehicle line executive, told reporters at a Baltimore media preview that the only thing the 500 and 500L share "is the number 500."
Indeed, the L delivers a friendlier overall experience than its junior sibling. It has drawbacks — namely the uncomfortable front seats — but its drivability, utility and value give Fiat a credible alternative to the slew of popular four-door hatchbacks out there.
The front-drive 500L comes in Pop, Easy, Trekking and Lounge models, with prices ranging from just under $20,000 to around $27,500, including destination charges. (See full details in our pricing post.) At a Baltimore media preview on Thursday, I drove production versions of all but the Trekking — an outdoorsy-looking trim level that's void of all-wheel drive, additional ground clearance or other off-road capability.
Jansen said all-wheel drive is "technically possible" for the 500L, but Fiat reckoned demand would be too scant, so front-wheel drive is the only choice now. We'll see. Forty percent of Mini Countryman new-car inventory on Cars.com has all-wheel drive, which suggests strong demand in the 500L's presumptive top competitor.
As an on-road hatchback, the 500L excels. Fiat's turbo 1.4-liter four-cylinder makes 160 horsepower and a respectable 184 pounds-feet of torque. As in the Dodge Dart and Fiat 500 Abarth that share the engine, power comes in peaky, high-rev bursts, but I found enough to muscle past slower highway traffic with three adults aboard and the air conditioning blasting to keep up with outside temperatures in the 80s.
The 500L gets the same dual-clutch six-speed automatic that's optional on the Dart sedan from Chrysler's Dodge subsidiary, but it behaves far better than in the Darts we've driven. Upshifts are smooth and swift; after a moment of kickdown lag, the gearbox downshifts multiple gears with no stair-stepping in between. It's runs a pricey $1,350 on Pop, Easy and Trekking models (standard on the Lounge) over a standard six-speed manual. The stick shift's long throws and tall gears make for little fun. Opt for the auto despite the cost.
Both transmissions deliver average gas mileage for this type of vehicle. Fiat expects EPA mileage of 25/33/28 mpg city/highway/combined on the manual and 24/33/27 mpg on the automatic — figures that match the Countryman but fall 2 or 3 mpg below an automatic-equipped Hyundai Elantra GT, Focus or Subaru Impreza hatchback. What's more, Fiat recommends premium gas; aside from Mini, the others run fine on regular unleaded.
Part of the efficiency blame goes to curb weight. At 3,254 pounds, an automatic 500L weighs some 800 pounds more than its two-door sibling. Heck, it's 157 pounds heavier than a Cooper S Countryman — and 306 and 470 pounds heavier, respectively, than a Ford Focus hatchback and an Elantra GT.
Modest body roll and vague steering inputs give a clear handling edge to the Countryman, but the 500L redeems itself on riddled pavement. While the Countryman gets skittish over ruts and manhole covers, the 500L stays put, and it does everything a degree quieter than the noisy Mini, too.
The same goes for the highway, where the 500L's lengthy wheelbase eliminates the two-door 500's up-and-down bobbing sensation. Fiat brought over the uprated Koni-brand shocks from the 500 Abarth, and from damping to isolation, the 500L rides damn well for a smallish hatchback - on par with the Focus and better than the firm Countryman (or Mazda3, for that matter). Highway steering feel aids the composure: The 500L settles in for comfortable, low-assist stability that's easy to manage.
Cabin versatility adds to the appeal, with a one-step tumbling second row that exposes around 65 cubic feet of maximum cargo volume — at least 12 cubic feet beyond any competitor mentioned so far. Fiat's so-called "glass A-pillars" are, in fact, narrow split pillars with glass in between. To Fiat's credit, forward visibility is good, and with the optional panoramic moonroof, the 500L should be a claustrophobe's happy place.
I wish Fiat had fixed these seats, however. We've complained about the overstuffed chairs in the 500. Some may find these even worse. Fiat says it modeled the 500L's chairs after airplane seats — because, you know, those are comfortable. Up front, the bottom cushions are too short; the backrests offer all the lateral support of a church pew.
The rear seats are better. Relative to other hatchbacks, they offer a high seating position and good legroom, with a minimal floor hump to obstruct footwell space. They also adjust forward and backward and recline — a rare provision in this class, albeit one the Countryman also provides.
After a slow start, the Fiat 500 has now outsold the Cooper (excluding the Countryman) through May. But despite all the variants, Mini's combined sales amount to those of the Ford Fiesta. We'll see if Fiat's additions help. But the 500L augments the 500's city-friendly attributes — its turning circle is still a tiny 32.3 feet, for instance — with much-needed refinement and utility. Is this the Italian compact that Americans want? I suspect so.