BALTIMORE, MD - Things are looking pretty darn good at Chrysler Canada these days. The Pentastar company is on a roll, having soundly eclipsed General Motors as the second-best selling brand in this country and even claiming first place in some months.
The parent company has put bankruptcy behind it, generating sufficient profits to help prop up its primary owner, Fiat, which is struggling with the worst automotive market in Europe in 20 years.
In return for Chrysler’s largesse, Fiat is giving us the 2014 500L – a car that bears some semblance to, but shares no sheet-metal with, the diminutive little Fiat 500.
The 500L should probably have a different name to help differentiate it from its funky little sister, which came to these shores in 2011. But there is equity in the 500 brand that neither Fiat nor Chrysler would be smart to waste.
The 500L is based on a new global “small-wide” platform that will serve beneath a number of Fiat and Chrysler products.
This newest Fiat to land at Dartmouth’s Autoport is 68 cm longer, 15 cm taller and 15 cm wider than the Fiat 500 resulting in a 42% hike in interior space.
Where the 500 is a cute little runabout for two, with guests on occasion if they are agile and not too big, the 500L is a lot more Fiat. It's a seriously roomy compact, if not mid-size, five-door wagon with head, knee and legroom in the rear seat for three regular or two very large and/or tall adults.
From the pugnacious “whiskers and logo” face to the big rear hatch it is a stylish box, as you’d expect from the Italians.
The upper portion is almost all glass with 10 windows, including two vertical ones between what I’ll call the A and A pillars. Add in the massive optional twin-panel panoramic sunroof and you have one extremely light and airy interior.
Designed in Italy and built in Serbia, the 500L offers plenty of opportunity for personalization with 10 exterior and nine interior colours, five different wheels, four trim levels and three roof colours.
The interior capitalizes on the amount of glass and visibility, remaining light even with dark trim.
The instrument panel consists of a pair of major round gauges flanking smaller secondary units and a configurable digital display. A large 16-cm display for Chrysler’s excellent UConnect system (audio and available navigation and rear view camera) dominates the centre with conventional HVAC system below, controlled by three large round knobs.
To the right there is an upper glove box, a rubber lined tray and a larger lower glove box.
The steering wheel is another Italian touch – the designers refer to the shape as a squircle because the placement of the leather interior portion looks like a square within a circle. Neat.
The wheel adjusts for rake and reach and has hands-free and cruise-control buttons on the front and audio source and volume buttons on the backside.
The front seats are comfy and height adjustable in even the most basic model, although those with longer legs might find the bottom cushion a bit short.
The stadium-style rear seat slides fore and aft through a 12-cm range and reclines. Split 60/40 it both folds and tumbles.
Folded it can provide a flat floor when the rear cargo cover is raised to a secondary position. Tumbled forward on pneumatic struts it is positioned, along with a front passenger seat back that folds flat, to maximize cargo space.
With all seats in place there is a generous amount of cargo space, much more than competitors like the Kia Soul and much more expensive MINI Countryman.
The 500L comes to Canada in Pop ($19,995), Sport ($22,995), Trekking ($23,995) and Lounge ($25,995) trim levels. My first drive during the NAFTA introduction here was several hours in the top-of-the-line Lounge version with an automatic transmission.
My immediate impression was of spaciousness followed by that of a refined and quiet ride. The tall seating position, combined with the twin, slim A-pillars and wrap-around glass allows exceptional visibility.
Pushing hard through the back roads and rolling hills south of the city, the 500L impressed with its alacrity. This is no sports sedan, but it is not afraid of corners.
The shock absorbers, developed by the experts at Koni, incorporate a blow-off valve that lets off pressure quickly over deep potholes and major surface changes like speed bumps, reducing the harshness normally felt in these situations.
Later in the day a shorter session in an entry-level Pop version with the manual gearbox and no options left an even more positive impression because of the value available at this price point.
There is no sense of driving a stripped model. The $19,995 Fiat 500L Pop comes with air conditioning, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, tilt and telescope steering wheel, heated power mirrors, cruise-control, hands-free communication and height-adjustable seats for both driver and front seat passenger.
Early adopters will also get a “Beats by Dre” premium audio system at no added charge as part of an introductory package.
I didn’t get the chance to drive a Trekking version, developed specifically for the SUV crazy American market. I am not a fan of these faux softroaders with their added height and lower body cladding, but at least this one is more acceptable than most.
With protruding matte black front and rear bumpers, fender flares and running boards. The Trekking also gets a unique two-tone interior treatment and rides on specific 17-inch alloy wheels.
Beneath that stubby hood lies Fiat’s excellent 1.4-litre turbocharged four, the same unit found in the Fiat 500 Abarth and available on the Dodge Dart. Putting out a more-than-respectable 160 horsepower and 184lb-ft of torque, it drives the front wheels through six gears, shifted either manually or via a twin-shaft automatic transmission.
I tried both and could be quite happy with either. Chrysler says a second automatic with a conventional torque converter to blur shifts will come early next year. I see no reason to wait or even to offer it for that matter as the “Euro” twin clutch automatic is well suited to this sporty little conveyance.
The Fiat 500 attracted a whole new set of customers to Chrysler – fully 84% of them have never owned a Chrysler product before!
Not only have they proven to be extremely happy with the reliable little 500, many are starting families and looking for more doors and space for things like child seats and strollers.
I suspect they wilI be very happy with the 500L – as will additional newcomers to the local Chrysler store, folks looking for something a little different in the $18,000 -$25,000 compact car range.