An upbeat exterior design is the spiritual link between the 500L and its smaller siblings.
An upbeat exterior design is the spiritual link between the 500L and its smaller siblings.
George Kennedy for The Boston Globe

When an automaker’s offering is a compact city car, growth presents a certain challenge. Profits are achieved through expansion of the lineup, but you can only offer so many variants of a single model. So in order to grow, a small carmaker must offer larger vehicles; yet somehow avoid diluting the brand.

Such a campaign is currently underway at MINI with vehicles like the Clubman and Countryman. And now Fiat is making similar moves. With the all-new 500L, the Italian automaker presents a vehicle with a marginally larger footprint, but a seemingly infinite amount of added interior space. A lesson in ergonomics has never had this much character.

Many motorists still hold onto an outdated notion of Fiats as unreliable. But under the leadership of Sergio Marchionne, Fiat has acquired some of the most respected automakers in the world, including Ferrari, Maserati, and Alfa Romeo. Yes, Fiat owns Ferrari. And with the near-bankruptcy of Chrysler, Fiat acquired that brand as well, with the hope of using its existing dealership network to facilitate an Italian invasion. The leading edge of that assault has been the diminutive 500, and Fiat is looking to expand, with the all-new 500L, a compact multi-purpose vehicle that is a study in space management.

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First visual impressions: It looks like a 500, just bigger and with two more doors. Though Fiat has gone to great lengths to ensure the consumer makes the mental connection with the current two-door offerings in the US, the vehicles are vastly different beneath the skin. In fact, the 500L does not share a platform with the standard 500 at all, rather it’s built upon a new Fiat small car platform. As a result, the 500L is two inches longer than the standard 500, but yields 121 percent more cargo volume.

The design echoes that of several competing vehicles in the compact utility market—especially the Mini Countryman—even down to the alternately colored clamshell roof option. But the 500L is decidedly a Fiat, with the upbeat headlights, bold contrasting colors, and a small-yet-upright silhouette. Fiat designers said that they looked to past models for inspiration, but put an emphasis on the future when designing the 500L. As such, the 500L is a standout design that won’t blend in when parked at the mall. People buy Fiats as drivable fashion statements, and the 500L plays the part well.

While the exterior is bold, the cabin is downright shocking—specifically, for its ability to create so much interior space in a vehicle of this size. With the cabin’s total interior volume just shy of 100 cubic feet, roominess doesn’t seem possible; but through the use of clever engineering and high strength steel, certain key parts have been made smaller. As such, the 500L boasts best-in-class overall interior space, as well as best-in-class cargo space, rivaling small minivans and mid-size SUVs in the category.

While the driver can benefit from the available Uconnect touchscreen, all can enjoy the spacious cabin of the 500L.
While the driver can benefit from the available Uconnect touchscreen, all can enjoy the spacious cabin of the 500L.
George Kennedy for The Boston Globe

Even this writer’s 6-foot-3-inch frame fit well into the 500L as we made our test journey through Baltimore and surrounding areas. Most impressive was the knee-and-head room. This level of comfort is standard across the entire lineup, including the base Pop model, with an MSRP of $19,100. That is just one of four uniquely named trims, including Easy (MSRP $20,195), Trekking ($22,195), and Lounge ($22,195). For the first year of production, Fiat is throwing in the Premier Package for anyone selecting the latter two trims. This ups the touchscreen from 5 inches to 6.5 inches, and adds a backup camera, backup sensors, and navigation system as no-charge options.

All models come with Fiat’s 1.4-liter MultiAir turbocharged inline-4. It makes 160 horsepower and a rather impressive 184 pound feet of torque, sent to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed dual clutch transmission, which can be operated via a tap-shift function on the center console-mounted shifter. The manual is the only transmission available on the Pop, while opting for uprated trims allows the buyer to chose either.

If fuel economy is the deciding factor, you’ll be splitting hairs. The manual transmission achieves 25 miles per gallon city, and 33 miles per gallon highway and the dual-clutch transmission manages 24 city and 33 highway.

Given that such a small engine is moving a 3,000-pound vehicle, these are impressive fuel economy numbers. Also impressive is the fact that the 500L was never underpowered in acceleration and felt composed in turns at speed. While there is a moment where the vehicle leans into a turn, once it has settled, steering remains articulate.

Visibility is never an issue either, as the split A-pillar and upright greenhouse offer near-360-degree views of the road. Combined with the massive dual pane moonroof, the cabin of the 500L is bathed in light, adding to its cavernous interior feeling.

The 500L is a brilliant move for Fiat. The plucky Italian brand has been back in the States since 2010. In that time, some 500 and 500C owners may have started families, or found needs for a larger vehicle. The 500L gives Fiat an option to offer its buyers a vehicle that blows its previous offerings away in terms of versatility, but manages to hold onto the charisma that makes the brand such a draw for fashionable city dwellers. The ability to manage space in the 500L may be surprising, but Fiats ability to channel its brand’s playful nature is certainly not.

2014 Fiat 500L

THE BASICS Price: $19,100. As tested: $22,195. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 25/33. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 31.3 mpg. 1.4L V8, 6MT/6AT, front-wheel drive. Body: 5-passenger, 4-door, compact multi-purpose vehicle.

THE SPECIFICS Horsepower: 160. Torque: 184 lb.-ft. Overall length: 167.1 in. Wheelbase: 102.8 in. Height: 65.7 in. Width: 69.8 in. Curb weight: 3,203 lbs. (3,254 lbs. for 6AT).

THE GOOD Ikea-worthy space management, standout looks, impressive fuel economy.

THE BAD For a city car, turning radius is lacking. No automatic transmission on base model.

THE BOTTOM LINE Ideal city car for a growing family or anyone who needs more space than a standard Fiat 500.

ALSO CONSIDER Mini Countryman, Mazda5, Kia Soul