A unique offering in the compact wagon segment, it has a bit of an identity crisis.

2016 Fiat 500L Trekking Review

A quirky, urban family wagon

By: Lindsay Prossnitz

Web2Carz Contributing Writer

Published: May 12th, 2016

After a 27-year hiatus from the American market, Fiat returned in 2011 with the sale of its popular little 500 city car. While the Italian mini-hatch was cute and fun to drive, it was also too small to satiate America's super-sized appetite. Hence, the Fiat 500L was born, introduced for the 2014 model year. With four doors and an extra two feet of room to work with, the 500L is intended for urban family dwellers who need the added seating and cargo capacities, on top of a thrifty engine and modern design.

The 2016 500L sees few changes. The four-door wagon retains its wagon/hatchback/crossover blend look. Its unique styling stands out on the road, while the added space makes it more versatile than its bite-sized counterpart. However, its cuteness doesn't always translate into functionality, and its whimsical nature extends to its performance, making it a tough sell when the market is becoming inundated with compact crossovers and hatches.

  • Driving Impressions

    All five trims of the 500L - Pop, Easy, Trekking, Urbana and Lounge - are offered with the same turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder found in the 500 Abarth. Unfortunately, that's where the two similarities end as the 500L handles nothing like the feisty Abarth. The 500L's increased size also adds a hefty 800-pounds to its curb weight over the 500. As quick as the turbo I4 is in the 500, it can't sufficiently pull the L's heavier load, feeling burdened on the road. It does still manage to be quite thrifty, despite the extra poundage it's hauling around, reaching up to 30 mpg on the highway.

    All trims except the top-end Lounge come standard with a six-speed manual, with an available six-speed automatic, which our test vehicle had and proved to problematic. While the vehicle itself provides a steady ride, uninterrupted by potholes and road noise, the transmission struggles under pressure. It has no issue selecting gears with slower driving around the city, but once you try to push it a bit, even just accelerating on the highway, it begins to gear-hunt, often unsure of where to settle.

    • Ride Quality:With its enlarged size, the 500L feels grounded when on the road. Its touring-tuned suspension features MacPherson front struts and rear shock absorbers, which help to soften the ride. It feels smooth and composed driving around town or when cruising on the highway.
    • Steering:Steering was decent, but not great. It felt a bit vague at times, and could have been more precise around corners. Another quirk was the steering wheel stitching, which was done in a square pattern, even though the wheel is a circle. Like we said, whimsical.
    • Acceleration:Accelerating is, perhaps, the 500L's greatest challenge to overcome. The engine just can't pull all that weight sufficiently. It lags occasionally after coming to a halt at a stop sign, much less trying to merge on the highway. The automatic had a tendency to gear-hunt when I was trying to accelerate quickly on the highway, often shifting back and forth between gears when I had my foot on the pedal. At one point it even reached 6,000 rpms before shifting and I was afraid I was going to redline it.
    • Braking:Braking is progressive and has good pedal feel. Another peculiar note is the large parking brake located on the floor.
    • Handling:Though the suspension provides a fluid ride feel for the 500L, its handling is a bit dull. Though classified as a small wagon, it feels much larger, almost like the mini school bus it resembles with its bumble bee yellow and black exterior. It doesn't share the same sharp cornering abilities and playful maneuvering of the 500.

  • Technology and Safety

    The Fiat 500L's interior proves to be its best asset in space and technology. It comes well-equipped with useful systems you'll want to use on a daily basis. Even its base model comes with a six-speaker sound system, Bluetooth with voice command, a media hub with a USB port and auxiliary input, and Fiat's Uconnect 5.0 multimedia system with a 5.0-inch touch screen. That's a great value for the base Pop trim's low MSRP, but this trim doesn't have the option to add a rear back-up camera. None of the trims come standard with a rear camera, but it is offered as an option bundled with other technology in packages. Unfortunately, driver assistance safety options are limited, with only a rear camera and parking sensors offered.

    The 500L's interior has been slightly revamped to look more modern and clean. The dual gauge instrument cluster looks hi-tech and provides clear readouts of trip, time, fuel levels, temperature, etc. The overall layout of the center stack is neat and tidy, though the gloss black trim isn't for everyone and is easily smudged. Some of the other plastics throughout the cabin also looked more utilitarian than upscale.

    • Infotainment Screen Size/Quality:We had the upgraded 6.5-inch touchscreen with the Uconnect 6.5 system. The screen was easy to ready, with a straightforward home screen featuring clear, crisp graphics and useful icons. The screen is responsive to touch, and has minimal processing time.
    • Bluetooth Phone Pairing:Bluetooth pairing was easy to do with an iPhone, but we found that the vehicle didn't always remember the phone when re-entering, and sometimes had difficulty switching between the car's radio and streaming music.
    • Voice/Sound Quality:The optional Beats sound system is well worth the extra cost, providing loud, rich sound, that hits every octave, especially the rumbling bass notes.
    • Controls:Buttons are knobs are used sparingly, and only when necessary, giving the center stack a nice clean-cut look.
    • Safety:All 500L models comes with a host of standard safety features like: antilock disc brakes, traction and stability control, hill start assist, front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbag, side-curtain front airbags, knee-bolster airbag and active head restraints. While the 500L received IIHS's highest "good" rating in 4 out of 5 crash tests, it did receive a "poor" rating in the small overlap front test.

  • Exterior Design and Styling

    The 500L has an unmistakable Fiat face resembling its smaller brother, with wide a front fascia, and circular headlights. It's two feet longer than the traditional 500 with two added doors, and about 6 inches taller and wider. It also has a curb weight around 3,200 pounds, which is about 800 more than the 500. It has a chunky stance to it, making it look almost bus-like, but in a charming, shrunken way. Everything about the 500L's design, from its profile, to its fog lights, to its steering wheel, resembles a square with rounded edges, much like Fiat's badge.

    Fiat has taken the "less is more" approach when designing the 500L, which carries on the 500's simple design cues in front and back. But, buyers can add some pizzazz and individualize their 500L, with three different roof colors available (black, white, or red), with matching accent colors on the mirror caps. Optional deep-tinted sunscreen glass on the passenger side windows and rear glass provide additional privacy.

    • Front:A mesh-patterned blacked-out horizontal grille sits low on the face of our 500L Trekking, meant to appear more rugged. Two cooling ducts sit below Fiat's badge, with extended chrome accents on either side. Round headlights contribute to the cuteness factor, with smaller fog lamps placed below.
    • Rear:The 500L's backside gets wider the further down to the ground it goes. A simplistic rear design sees rounded square taillights with another Fiat badge placed in the middle, followed underneath by chrome 500L lettering. The tiny matching-shaped lights below almost look decorative rather than purposeful. To complete the Trekking look is a stainless steel exhaust tip.
    • Profile:From the side, the 500L carries on the smooth, rounded rectangular look found in most of its styling elements. Chrome accents have been placed throughout, on the bodyside molding inserts and door handles for extra flair. Our 17-inch wheels were blacked out for a tougher look, but we prefer the standard aluminum alloy color.

  • Driver and Passenger Comfort

    Unlike smaller vehicles which you usually have to stoop or hunch to crawl into, entry and exit from the 500L is very smooth, with its elevated stance, large doors, and level roofline. This is a vehicle you don't have to worry about bumping your head on, outside or in. A high roof gives ample headroom inside, even for a six-footer wearing a fedora. Abundant interior space rivals that of many small crossovers, with plenty of legroom in front and back. The open space is further accentuated by the optional dual-pane sunroof which makes the cabin feel light and airy.

    Unfortunately, the seats themselves are not as ergonomic. While the driver seat is high-mounted for a good view of the road, it's awkwardly placed between the armrests, making it difficult to ever really settle in. A tiny sliver of an armrest exists on the driver's right side, and then there's a huge gap on the left side between the seat and the door's arm rest. Heated seats are not standard on any level but are added in various packages. Surprisingly, our $3,300 Trekking package was still devoid of this comfort.

    • Front Seats:The seat bottoms are very soft and cushiony, but the backs of the seats are stiff, and only mildly comfortable. Aside from a power lumbar support, the seats can only be adjusted manually.
    • Rear Seats:The rear seats have the same over-firmness in their backs as the front seats. The rear seats are described as 60/40 slide, tilt, and tumble, so they essentially do everything but lay flat. While this is useful for storing more cargo items, split-folding seats would serve better. Passengers will be happy, though, with the amount of room they have to stretch out their legs.
    • Visibility:An elevated ride height provides a good vantage point for the driver. The front windshield is expansive, giving great outward visibility with little obstruction nay for the bizarre dual A-pillars on each side.

  • Storage and Cargo Room

    The 500L's two extra feet of space to work with really shines in the cabin and cargo area, providing more than sufficient space for people and belongings. With 68 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity (with the second-row seats folded forward), the 500L's holding capacities rival some larger compact crossovers. While the tilt, tumble, and slide seats are useful to accommodate larger objects, space would be even further maximized by a flat-folding second row. Aftermarket equipment like racks and carriers can be added to the 500L's roof to trek around larger objects like kayaks and bicycles.

    • Storage:Two glove boxes provide an adequate amount of space to store some essentials. Medium-sized door pockets can't hold a ton of items, but are useful nonetheless. There's a small nook in the center stack, below the heating/cooling knobs, which would make a nice place to store a phone if only it weren't so shallow. Cupholders are located up front, but don't come standard in the back. However, an available rear seat armrest with cup holders is an option.
    • Trunk/Cargo Room:The Fiat's generous 68 cubes in the rear is aided by a removable shelf that rests in the middle to provide dual-level storage. Even with all seats upright, the 500L offers 22.4 cubic feet of space, which is still competitive for its segment.

  • Final Impressions: An Acquired Taste

    Fiat's Italian wagon is an overall decent vehicle, but some disappointing performances in key areas causes it to fall a bit short when stacking up to other competitors. Both the Kia Soul and Mini Cooper Clubman are able to offer space and versatility, but bring the sporty handling that the L loses from its tiny sibling. It still functions as a practical urban family vehicle, but doesn't uphold the same driving characteristics associated with the Fiat name.

    The 500L is going to have to rely on its cuteness and charm to win over buyers. There are better options out there, and we hope the 500L's next generation (if there is one) takes note and makes some serious improvements beyond mere aesthetics.

  • Specifications and Price

    Engine:1.4-liter I4 Turbo

    Transmission:6-speed automatic

    Drivetrain Layout:front engine, front-wheel drive

    Power Output:160 horsepower / 184 lb-ft

    Fuel Economy (mpg):22 city / 30 highway

    Base Price: $21,880

    As Tested: $29,125 (incl. $995 destination)

    Standard Features:Keyless entry, rear window defrost, rear window wiper, Uconnect 5.0, 6 premium speakers, USB port and auxiliary input, steering wheel mounted audio controls, leather-wrapped steering wheel, air conditioning, 60/40 rear seat, chrome and leather shift knob, 17-inch aluminum wheels.

    Options on our test vehicle: Customer Preferred Package 23H ($1,600) adding: premium cloth bucket seats, Urbana Trekking, gloss black instrument panel bezels, matte black exterior mirrors, matte black body side molding with bright insert, satin door handle, Beats Premium Audio System, 17-inch matte black wheels; Urbana Trekking Collection 3 ($3,300) including: sun visors with illuminated vanity mirrors, auto-dimming rearview mirror, dual-pane sunroof, GPS navigation, Uconnect 6.5, ParkSense rear park assist system, ParkView rear back-up camera; 6-speed automatic transmission ($1,350).

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