Overpriced and Underperforming: Why the 2019 Fiat 500L Comes Up Small
(Bloomberg) -- Small cars should make people smile.
What sociopath doesn’t smile when they see a Mini Cooper or a vintage Volkswagen Beetle rolling down the road? Who doesn’t appreciate the BMW Z4 or the Porsche 914 for their agreeable good looks and plucky driving nature? These types of toys exist to bring pure, simple joy.
Yet joy was far from the emotion I felt after spending a week with the 2019 Fiat 500L. With well-regarded high-tuned Abarth and fashion siblings, cars that promised a luxurious la dolce vita lifestyle in their marketing campaigns, it came as a shock that the enlarged version of Fiat’s diminutive 500 model is far from perfect.
Instead, the 500L provides the most tangible evidence that what’s happening at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV right now is not great. And plenty is happening at Fiat, most notably the death of its major-domo, Sergio Marchionne, and in the nine months since, a stock value that’s down more than 10 percent, or about €4 billion ($4.5 billion).
I, for one, am rooting for the 120-year-old company that makes some of the most beautiful cars in the world (ahem, Ferrari). I want it to continue to thrive and prosper. But that’s tough when faced with a dud like the 500L, which should have been a viable, bottom-line-padding answer to an increasing consumer need for sensible, fuel-efficient, easy-to-park “mobility” options.
Let’s start with how it looks. When the 500L made its debut in Geneva in 2012, designers said they channeled the Villa Savoye when they built it. The Villa Savoye is a boxlike modernist house co-designed by Le Corbusier outside Paris. A house.
The most desirable vehicles are often fashioned after plenty of other things—stallions, panthers for starters—not houses. And indeed, the Fiat 500L looks about as ungainly driving down the road as a house on four wheels would. The bottom of the grille is pushed out farther than the top, tilted at an angle like the back of those atrocious $1,600 Gucci tennis shoes. The pillars on either side of the car’s front cabin fork into two, in an apparent attempt to aid visibility, which in practice means that when you change lanes, you’ve got to see around two pillars rather than one.
Here’s more: The 17-inch painted (as opposed to actual) aluminum wheels look comically tiny underneath its bloated body and tall seats. The tiny round “fog lights” look like they belong on the front of the 25¢ mechanical joyride in front of a Wendy’s I’d pass on even as a child. When I picked up the 500L last week in Manhattan, I half-expected to see circus clowns piling out of it before I got inside.
To see one of these bumbling down the street, it’s difficult to imagine the car derives from the hallowed halls of Italian design and heritage. Fiat lost its way when it designed the 500L; let’s hope it’s only temporary.
So maybe that’s harsh. If the interior of this looney-tune were great, I could squeeze my eyes shut and get inside and be relatively happy. Alas, the interior was no better, even with my eyes closed. Just feeling around from the driver’s seat revealed a story in cut-rate materials and cheapo construction.
While the five seats are covered in a decent scrim of leather, the plastic dashboard and doorsills do nothing to assuage the overall discomfort of sitting behind the wheel. Keep in mind, you can buy a Mercedes-Benz A-Class sedan for $32,500 at this point—just $5,000 more than the 500L I drove. And an Audi A3 sedan goes for $33,300.
I say this not to claim these are direct competitors—though they are about as capable passenger-wise, and much more drivable—but to show that as Fiat nears the $30,000 barrier with its cars, it approaches “premium” territory. If it’s going to be in premium territory, it should feel premium. And it doesn’t. The cardboard feel of the seats and their overall lack of lumbar, shoulder, and hip support exacerbates the problem; it adds insult to injury that the seat adjusters are also manual. If the car cost $20,000, I could see it. But for almost $30,000? We should get something more.
Then there’s the placement of the two front seats, which are so highly positioned in the car, you might as well be sitting on the roof. Driving feels like peering over the front of a cliff’s edge before diving into the water below; 20 minutes behind the wheel nearly gave me vertigo. And rear visibility is obstructed far more than you’d imagine in a mini-crossover-type vehicle.
But wait! It gets worse. The 500L suffers from embarrassing turbo lag. It also suffers from noncommittal braking. The steering feels so disconnected from the car, it might as well be based on a suggestion box the car doesn’t check.
When I drove it in and around New York last week—the one place where it should excel as a small, practical city car ideal for urban living—the Fiat 500L lacked the gumption, agility, and engineering required for even a modicum of driving engagement. I wish I could report it had a peppy little engine or sporty handling, like a similarly priced Mini Cooper, whose BMW engineering proves plucky and willing from the get-go. Instead, it has an anemic 160-horsepower inline-four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. No manual version is offered for the North American market, which is too bad, because at least then you’d be in control of your own destiny as you drive this thing, rather than beholden to the whims of the delayed-reaction transmission.
Here are some niceties about this particular Fiat: It parks easily, since even though it’s a “crossover,” it’s 19 inches shorter than an Audi A4 sedan. With fuel efficiency at 30 mpg on the highway and 22 mpg in the city, the 500L will help you maximize your gas budget. And with 60-40 folding rear seats, it’s capable of lugging weekly groceries or Fido on his trip to the vet. The entertainment system links with Bluetooth quickly. It comes standard with creature comforts that we expect to come standard these days, such as backup cameras, remote keyless entry, Apple CarPlay, and heated front seats.
After two extras—a $1,395 sunroof and a $345 black roof trim—the total price of the 500L I drove came to $27,355. If this car cost half that, it might be worth it. But it doesn’t; it’s an overpriced underperformer. You could buy a Mini Countryman or a Subaru Outback for that kind of money.
In fact, I would recommend it.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.