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October 31, 2013

Fiat 500L adds space, practicality to fun Italian design

This is a car that can't be judged by the pictures.

If you haven't seen it in person, you might assume the Fiat 500L is an ever-so-slightly larger version of the Fiat 500, the cute, lovable Italian car that's one of the smallest vehicles on the road.

But that one letter makes a huge difference.

The 500L is not only a whole lot bigger than the 500 — six inches wider, six inches higher and a whopping 27 inches longer — but it drives like a dramatically different vehicle, more like a van than a car.

Part of that feeling comes from the sheer amount of volume inside. The 500L has 42 percent more interior space than the ordinary 500, enough to be classified as a "large car" according to the federal government, yet its styling makes it look deceptively small. It has the same adorable puppy-dog face as its compact sibling.

The bigger size makes it eminently more practical, starting with the fact that the 500L actually has back doors, unlike the two-door 500. The extra width and height makes the cabin feel spacious and airy, and the extra length gives it a surprising amount of cargo space — enough for Fiat to claim best-in-class honors.

The downside of all that space is that the 500L loses some of the driving fun of the 500, which is one of its best attributes. With a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine, the 500L is not quite as zippy as the 500 because of its added heft and size. 

Still, by large-car standards, it's fun to drive, with a firm, very European-feeling suspension that nicely transmits texture from the road. 

Fiat could do a couple of things to improve it. One is shorten the throw of its manual transmission, which feels a bit long and truck-like for an Italian car. The other is to tighten up the feel of some of its dials on the dash, a picky thing that some of its competitors do a better job of.

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