There's no doubt the 500L is a Fiat. Although it shares no common parts with its tiny predecessor the Fiat 500, it shares a common design language that's cute, without being overly precious.
Fiat designers call the 500L the anti-SUV because of its very upright, cab-forward design, a stark contrast from many crossovers and SUVs that are going for sleeker shapes and dramatically sloping rooflines.
Built on an all-new small-wide platform, the body of the 2014 Fiat 500L has a relatively small footprint, despite it being more than two feet longer than the Fiat 500. The windshield is a unique three-piece design, giving it a panoramic look. Square and rectangular shapes with rounded corners can be found everywhere, from the steering wheel to the taillights.
The front fascia looks friendly and approachable. The Fiat badge sits in the center of a moustache-like line above the grille. Trekking models get a toothy grille and dark gray bumper, which give a more utilitarian look. On other trim levels, the grille is more of a gentle smile, with a color-keyed front bumper. Headlights in oval lenses are stretched back along the front fender. Separate round parking lamps sit below the headlamp housings. Tiny round foglights are integrated into the lower front bumper.
From the side, the 500L's upright stance is apparent. The roofline slopes gently, giving it a softer appearance than some of its boxy competitors, but not as dramatically as some of the newer, sleeker crossovers. Side moldings are prominent; they're dark gray on Trekking models and feature a chrome strip on Lounge models. Tiny round side markers mimic the bubbly shapes of the other lights. Base models get 16-inch wheels with plastic covers; our test car had sportier 16-inch aluminum wheels.
In the rear, the hatch is large and flat, accented by an integrated roof spoiler and raised, rounded tail lamps. Rear backup lights continue the square with rounded corner theme, and the tail pipe is small but wide, also with rounded corners. Trekking models get a dark gray license plate surround and a unique rear lower bumper.
It's surprisingly spacious inside the 2014 Fiat 500L. The feeling is open and airy, ideal for taller people and those who feel constricted in smaller wagons and crossovers. However, those who prefer a cabin that envelops its occupants may feel a bit lost in the 500L. The wide interior makes side armrests far away, out of reach for those of smaller stature. The top of the instrument panel is deep, presumably to accommodate the sloping windshield without cutting into cabin space. The rearview mirror, map lights and sunroof switches (on cars so equipped) are more than an arm's length away.
Front seats are comfortable; Fiat designer claim they were inspired by airplane seats (business class, we hope). Our test car, an Easy model, had cloth upholstery. On Trekking models, an upgraded, more rugged cloth interior is optional. Top-of-the line Lounge models get optional premium leather, but we weren't able to see an example of this.
Headroom up front is about on par with its competitors, at 40.7 inches, more than the 40 inches available on the Kia Soul, but short of the 42.6 inches offered in the Nissan Cube. The 500L's optional dual-pane sunroof eats up a tiny bit of headroom, providing a still-spacious 40.4 in front. On a side note, Fiat uses a translucent sunroof cover, which lets in light even when closed, and can create glare on the instrument panel. The center controls are clean and simple. Three knobs for the climate control are large and easy to use. Chrysler's Uconnect handsfree system comes standard, which allows users to pair their phones via Bluetooth and control audio functions using a 5-inch touch screen or with voice recognition. Uconnect can also receive text messages and send pre-set, canned messages while driving.
Cars equipped with navigation get a 6.5-inch color touchscreen and Sirius satellite radio. We found the touchscreen interface easy to use, and we particularly like being able to switch between 2D and 3D views, as well as change map orientation, straight from the main map display. It's a refreshing change from most systems where you have to delve deep into a menu of options.
One feature we came to loathe during our test drive is an electronic voice that curtly tells you the current speed limit if you happen to go a little too fast. This electronic babysitter might be helpful to some, but we found her annoying.
Although it's generally well designed, the Fiat 500L cabin has a few peculiarities. Body-colored sheet metal is exposed along the seams of the doors, and because of this design, the interior door trim looks rather stuck-on. We could also see a small impression on each A-pillar, which are presumably exposed welds painted over. Also, the parking brake lever is huge, and looks like a control you'd find in an Airbus jet.
Doors and armrests of our test car were covered with a light gray fabric; they looked good new, but we imagine they'd get dirty quickly. The texture was also slightly rough to the touch. The fabric-like vinyl covering the instrument panel was also slightly textured, like the finest grit sandpaper. Base Pop models get a plastic instrument panel painted to match the exterior.
Storage space up front is minimal. Front door pockets are wide enough to hold an average-sized water bottle, but nothing bigger. The center armrest on our Easy test model was narrow, and only offered enough room for a mobile phone.
Audio quality is adequate on the base sound system, but, like others in this class, is nothing special. The upgraded Beats audio package with subwoofer sounds better, and the difference was most noticeable when listening to bass-thumping pop, house and hip hop. With the volume up loud, music sounded clear with very little distortion.
Rear legroom is plentiful in the Fiat 500L and measures 36.7 inches. It's less than the Kia Soul's 39 inches, but more than the Mini Countryman's 33.8 inches and the Nissan Cube's 35.5 inches. There's also plenty of headroom, measuring 38 inches with the sunroof and 38.7 inches without. That's shy of the Nissan Cube's 40.2 inches and the 2013 Kia Soul's 40 inches (Soul is being redesigned for 2014). The Mini Countryman gets 38 inches on all trim levels.
Rear seatbacks in the Fiat 500L are flat without much side support, making the back best for short trips. The middle seat is also very narrow, and the center console eats into foot space, so it's best left to small children.
Cargo space is best in this class, measuring a roomy 21.3 cubic feet with the rear seats in place. That blows away the Nissan Cube's 11.4 cubes, the Mini Countryman's 16.5 cubic feet and the Kia Soul's 19.3 cubes. Rear seats split 60/40 for more versatility, though they do not automatically fold flush with the rear cargo area; the cargo floor must be raised to make a completely flat surface. Smaller adults might find the rear hatch a little heavy to close, but a built-in handle on the inside makes it easier to manage.
Overall, we found the fit and finish of the Mini Countryman interior to be nicer, but we prefer the cabin of the Fiat to that of the Kia Soul. An extensive use of hard plastics gives the Kia a less-premium look, and the wide A-pillar and large side mirrors makes for a larger blind spot than the Fiat's open three-pane windshield design.