With its mini-minivan-like body and Fiat 500 city car–inspired mug, the 2016 Fiat 500L is a love-it or hate-it affair. And if sales are anything to go by, American consumers fall largely in the hate-it camp. Last year, Fiat moved fewer than 8000 500Ls off U.S. showroom floors—down 37 percent from the previous year. To put that into perspective against the 500L’s closest competitor, Kia sold nearly 20 times as many Souls in 2015. Even the Fiat 500X crossover SUV, a model that didn’t go on sale until the middle of 2015, found more buyers than the 500L did last year. Things aren’t looking up for the 500L this year either, as sales are down more than 60 percent through May 2016.
Despite failing to find a foothold in the U.S., Fiat continues to fiddle with the husky-looking 500L that first came to our shores about three years ago as a 2014 model. Last year, a new, optional six-speed automatic transmission with a traditional torque converter replaced the previous six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission in all but the base 500L Pop. A six-speed manual remains the standard transmission. Along with the new automatic, the 500L gained an additional trim level: the Urbana Trekking. Positioned above the Trekking in the model’s trim hierarchy (which moves across Pop, Easy, Trekking, Urbana Trekking, and Lounge strata), the Urbana wears the Trekking’s SUV-inspired plastic body cladding but adds black-painted wheels and dark chrome trim to the exterior, plus a black or (new for 2016) red roof with matching mirror caps. Inside, a big slab of piano-black plastic spans much of the dash, while the steering wheel is wrapped in black leather and the door panels are lined in black leatherette. Also included is a BeatsAudio system, an option on all but the base Pop trim level.
Starting at $24,475, our red-roofed test car rang in at a substantial $29,125 thanks to the additions of the $3300 Urbana Trekking Collection 3 package (which includes a panoramic sunroof, sun visors with illuminated vanity mirrors, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, dual-zone automatic climate control, a 6.5-inch touchscreen Uconnect infotainment system with navigation, power lumbar support on the driver’s seat, a rearview camera, and audible reverse sensors) and the $1350 Aisin-sourced six-speed automatic transmission.
Compared with the dual-clutch unit, the 500L’s new automatic transmission does a far better job of meting out the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine’s 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. In our hands, the trip to 60 mph arrived in 8.0 seconds, and the quarter-mile passed by after 16.2 seconds at 86 mph—gains of 0.9 and 0.7 second compared with the last dual-clutch 500L we tested. At speed, though, little changed, as the automatic recorded a top-gear, 30-to-50-mph time of 4.7 seconds, or 0.1 second behind that of the dual-clutch 500L. Credit the engine’s prodigious turbo lag while rolling and the new transmission’s lethargic downshifts.
Fuel-economy ratings with the new automatic drop to 22 mpg city and 30 mpg highway from 24/33 mpg with the dual-clutch. We averaged 25 mpg over 1200 miles; in previous tests with the dual-clutch-equipped 500L, we recorded disparate figures of 21 mpg and 27 mpg.
As those acceleration numbers suggest, the bug-eyed hatch is most comfortable at in-town speeds, where quick steering makes navigating city streets a breeze. On the highway, however, the Fiat skips over freeway expansion joints like a stone on a still lake. Rubbing salt in this wound are the 500L’s flat, unsupportive seats, which left us fatigued after a few hours behind the wheel, as well as the upright seating position that exacerbates the effect of the bulky box’s body motions. Meanwhile, chintzy interior materials, misaligned pieces, and numerous rattles are constant reminders that the 500L is built in Serbia at the same factory that birthed the infamous Yugo GV.
Things aren’t much better for rear-seat occupants, who find vertical space is compromised by the 500L’s tapering roofline. Opt for the panoramic sunroof, and any passenger above average height will have to slouch to avoid grazing the headliner, as the big panel of glass reduces rear headroom by more than half an inch. Legroom in the rear is passable, although the Kia Soul offers 2.4 inches more space for rear riders to stretch out.
While carrying passengers may not be the 500L’s forte, hauling cargo is. Open the rear hatch and 22 cubic feet of space is available behind the rear seats. Fold and tumble the 60/40-split rear bench and 68 cubic feet of utility becomes available—besting the Soul by seven cubes.
But like a bar patron who’s had one too many, the 500L ultimately is more irritating than charming—even with this better-behaved automatic transmission. Which may explain why American consumers are flocking to Fiat’s own 500X crossover and the comparably quirky Kia Soul instead.