2020 Fiat 500L

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If you ever wanted to buy a new Fiat  . . . without going to Italy – this may be your last chance.

Fiat isn’t doing well – because small cars (which is all Fiat sells) aren’t.

Not because they are bad cars. Honda – as blue chip a brand as there is – just cancelled the two-door Civic, to give you some sense of how tough times are for small cars generally.

And Fiat is one of the very few brands still selling a small wagon, the 500L.

What It Is

The 500L is a compact-sized five-door wagon – a type of vehicle that’s getting scarce because of American tastes  – which incline toward crossovers.

This one’s actually similar – in terms of its space, which is comparable to that of same-sized crossovers, because of its hatchback’d layout, tall roof and no wall of separation between its passenger area and its cargo area.

But it differs from your typical crossover in terms of its ride height. Which is about the same as that of your typical car.

Prices start at $22,500 for the base Pop trim; a top-of-the-line Lounge stickers for $24,645.

All come with the same turbocharged 1.4 liter four cylinder engine paired with a six-speed automatic transmission and front-wheel-drive.

What’s New

A slight price bump.

Last year’s 500 – which is the same as this year’s – stickered for $21,910 to start. That’s $590 less than the same thing this year.

A top-of-the-line Lounge trim also costs a few hundred bucks more this year.

But you may end up paying less; more about the why below.

What’s Good

Crossover space – without the height.

Subcompact length – mid-sized legroom (both rows).

If you dislike driver “assistance” tech, you’ll like this one  . . . because it hasn’t got any.

What’s Not So Good

Back seats fold down – but not all the way flat.

Turbocharged engine wants premium gas.

Fiat may soon be scarce. Which’ll make it hard to find one of these.

Under The Hood

As with many current small cars, the 500L comes with a very small engine – just 1.4 liters. But it makes the power of a larger engine – 160 hp – because of the turbocharger that’s bolted to it.   

Interestingly, this engine is (well, was – before it got cancelled) the optional and high-performance engine that powered high-performance version of the 500L’s two-door stablemate, the 500 Abarth. It’s interesting because the 500L is not marketed as a performance car. This probably explains the absence of the Abarth’s boomy, open-piped exhaust system.

But the performance is there – ginned up by 21 pounds of boost huffed into those little cylinders.

Thereby, the L can get to 60 in under 8 seconds – a very solid time for this class and type of car.

There’s a catch, though.

To achieve the power – and the performance – you’ll need to feed this engine premium unleaded. High cylinder pressures – high octane (and high resistance to knock). You can use mid or regular grade without risking knock – the Fiat’s computer will dial back the boost (and thus, the cylinder pressure) to prevent it.

But less boost means less performance. You must pay a little extra to play.

Of interest, the 1.4 liter engine is a single overhead cam engine (SOHC). It is much more common to find dual overhead cam engines (DOHC) in modern cars. The reason being the DOHC layout offers more airflow – at the cost of more parts.

As almost always – pros and cons.

Another item of interest is the six-speed automatic that’s paired with the 1.4 liter engine – rater than the now-common continuously variable (CVT) automatic. It’s a less thrashy –  less noisy – type of transmission, with traditional changes through the gears as you go, rather than the CVT’s sometimes weird forward surge – without any shifting at all.

It is getting hard to find a small car – or crossover – without a CVT. Mazda is among the few other sellers of small cars that still uses them, other than Fiat.

There are some other interesting things, too.

For instance, the 500L’s engine isn’t direct-injected. Which makes it one of the dwindling number of engines you can still get in something new that isn’t fed fuel by two fuel pumps at several thousand pounds of pressure (vs. the usual 35-40 pounds) and that isn’t inherently susceptible to carbon fouling of the intake valves because there isn’t any gasoline (which is a solvent as well as a fuel) washing their backsides on its way to the combustion chamber.

Because in a DI engine, the fuel is directly injected into the cylinder.

The 500L’s engine isn’t a DI engine because the 2020 500L dates back to 2013 – when it was introduced as a new model for the 2014 model year. In those halcyon days, car companies weren’t under the pressure they are now to eke literally fractional gains in gas mileage and fractional reductions in “emissions” (carbon dioxide, air-quoted to snark the absurdity of characterizing an inert gas that way).

These days, the pressure is heavy – which is why almost all the newest new car engines are direct injected.

If you prefer one that isn’t, here’s it is.

On The Road

If you don’t like to be “assisted” by your car, then the 500L is a car you’ll probably be very interested in. It has no “advanced” – as they’re always styled – “driver assists,” such as Lane Keep Assist or Steering Assist, or Brake Assist.

The L, as already mentioned, was designed more than six years ago, when only a handful of high-end cars had such “advanced” tech. Since it hasn’t been changed much since 2014, it is still pretty the same to drive today as it was in 2014.

Which means it’s up to you to keep in its lane, steer it – and brake when the need arises.

Arguably, this makes for a safer drive, the driver paying more attention – because he’s not relying on “assists” to drive the car for him. It’s certainly a less annoying one, since this car doesn’t constantly hit you with buzzers and lights, which are also – very arguably – a major distraction in themselves.

Also of assistance is the  surround-view greenhouse glass and the comparatively short front and rear overhangs; most of the car is between the front and rear axles – so you have a better view as well as better maneuverability.

Which is about as easy it gets without getting a motorcycle – precisely because there’s not much to maneuver, in terms of the physical footprint of this thing.

Like most modern cars, the L has very tall top gearing. In sixth, it’s .067 and that means a fast idle at 70 (around 1,800 RPM) and also the potential to get about 30 MPG – even with a pretty deep 3.68 final drive ratio.

That’s pretty good for a car that gets to 60 in under 8 seconds – which is speedier than my ’76 V8 (and 7.5 liters) Trans-Am was when it was new. And the sensation of gears changing is pleasing, natural. CVTs that surge – normal for them – have a weird feel.

The main thing missing is the optional to shift for yourself, which would add a dose of fun to this practical little car.

At The Curb

This is a small car – only 167 inches end to end.

To get a sense of just how small that is, a Honda Civic sedan – a “compact” sedan – is 182.7 inches end to end.    

But unlike a not-so-small sedan like the Civic, the Fiat has lots of room for things as well as passengers. With its back seats up, the 500L has 22.4 cubic feet of space vs. 15.1 in the Civic’s trunk – which can’t be increased by folding it down (because it doesn’t).

While the Fiat’s back seats don’t fold all the way flat, they do fold back – well, forward – almost tripling the space for stuff to 68 cubic feet. It is possible to get several 2x4x8s inside the 500L – with the rear gate closed. Or even six bags 80 pound bags of cement mix.

There is also a smartly-designed storage rack system that makes even more use of the available space.

You can, of course, find similar space for stuff in small crossovers – like the Honda HR-V, for instance. But they ride higher (6.7 inches off the ground for the HR-V vs. 4.7 inches for the 500L).

The Fiat also offers fun options most crossovers don’t – such as two-tone paint schemes and body-colored interior trim pieces (as in the 500 two-door) that perk up the attitude of this ride.

All trims come standard with both AppleCarPlay and Android Auto – which a surprising number of higher-priced cars with lots of “advanced driver assistance” features either charge extra for or don’t offer at all.

And if you like the crossover-ish look, that’s available. The Trekking trim comes with wheel flares and body cladding, different front and rear clips plus a 17-inch whee/tire package.

But without the crossover-ish ride height.

The Rest

Fiat may not be here for much longer but that doesn’t mean Fiat parts – and service – won’t be.

Fiat is the owner of Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram, remember – and even if the Fiat dealers disappear, the parts chain won’t. FCA dealers (i.e., Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram) will also be able to service your Fiat, even if they no longer sell them.

Speaking of which.

It’s helpful – if you’re buying – that small cars aren’t selling. Also that Fiat is in a pinch. Now add the forced-by-government closure of dealers for several months and the fact that 2021 is already here, model year-wise.

While the 500L’s MSRP is higher than similar-size crossovers like the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX3 the chances you’ll pay less are high. Possibly much less. I have a friend (had a friend; sickness psychosis – she has it, I don’t – killed the friendship) who bought a brand-new but unsold one-model-year-old 500 – the three-door hatch – with almost every option for about 30 percent less than MSRP.

You might score a similar . . . score here as well.

The Bottom Line

It isn’t slow – and it isn’t high. It may also not be here for much longer. So if you’re interested, better hurry!

. . .

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26 COMMENTS

  1. Even the Toyota Yaris is cancelled!!

    Honda Fit is gone as well!! Small cars are done! Did you know the Honda Fit was made in CHINA and sold here,somehow people didnt know that!

    Too bad I liked gasping at those cars and thinking who buys those lol….But there is a small car crowd and being a car guy I feel somewhat sad/sorry for those people who were small car enthusiasts!

    Now we are stuck in a suv/truck world..I am so tired of trucks and suv’s!

    I am not a Fiat fan or small car fan at all..But these cars had it tough from the start,internet was full of rumors these break all the time and fall apart..People compare their used 7 year old Fiat they had in the 80’s and think thats how these cars are today,not so..

    I have a co worker who’s daughter has one,a female co worker owns one and a neighbor 3 doors down owns one..These are several years old now and they love them,no complaints..Cheap car that lasts 10 plus years for $15k they paid I guess its worth it..

    Now myself I cant drive small cars..Smallest car I own is my Challenger SRT anything else no-no!

    Now,I think a small car like this Fiat (base model) should be $12,000…If they sold tons of them for 12k then a small profit would be made(I would assume)..They should have sold them at Chrysler dealers,keep in touch with the owners and they may move up the Chrysler line-up in a few years,maybe jump to a Cherokee/Charger/minivan/truck or whatever..Thats just my thinking,I guess people will tell me where I am wrong lol..I am going for a 9pm cruise in my car with insane performance and comfort and yet 27 hwy mpg its a economy car! SEE YA!!

    • Hi Mopar,

      I’m a big (and RWD) car fan who also likes small cars; they have their merits, too. But not enough Americans see them. I think – hypothesis time – in part because of the sick obsession with . . . saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety! They have been conditioned to regard the small car as an unsafe car. Which is idiotic. A smaller car may be less able to withstand impact forces if it crashes – or is crashed into – but that does not mean it is “unsafe” anymore than not donning a Face Diaper is “unhealthy.”

      In fact, a small car’s superior maneuverability give it an advantage over a larger vehicle in terms of avoiding a crash in the first place.

      After college, back in the early ’90s, I drove to work (in DC traffic) in a ’73 Beetle. It was every bit as “safe” as Mercedes S-Class as I never so much as suffered a scratch while driving it!

  2. I don’t know too much about FIAT or the reliability of them (you’d think the old “Fix It Again Tony” joke would give me a clue lol, but I digress). What I do know is once FIAT leaves the US this time, it ain’t never coming back! And who can blame them? With all the regs that our leaders keep throwing at the auto manufacturers, ain’t nobody gonna want to do business with us anymore.

    • Hi Bluegrey,

      I agree in re Fiat not coming back; the good news, this time, is that Fiat owners won’t be abandoned. Getting parts and service should not be a problem fr many years to come because FCA is still here and probably will support all of its vehicles as long as it remains here.

  3. Oh, almost forgot about the FIAT thingie…
    Have 3 friends that have them; one has 2 – one for his daily and the other for his wife – and really likes them both. Of course, they are the ‘Abarth’ versions and I must admit, they are kinda fun to drive.
    Another bought one for his kid as the things are dirt cheap after a couple of years; he found one 2 years old, short mile and still actually under warranty for something less than 4 or 5G if I remember – the resale is nada on them. The third actually has one of these wagons on a lease; likes it so well that she may buy it after the lease is up. None have had any real problems [yet] , but have heard some horror stories from an acquaintance that works at the local dealer.
    But man are they homely…and small. The all white special edition Abarth one somehow IS kinda cool looking, but otherwise, its a face even most mothers couldnt love. That and their deserved reputation of unreliability doomed them [again] in the US imho.

    • Hi Luke,

      True stuff herewith: The only press cars – brand new cars sent out to car journalists like me to drive for a week and then review – I’ve ever had issues with weren’t Italian jobs. They were . . . German. Javol! I had one that would change radio stations in curves; another that wouldn’t shift out of Park – and then (after some fiddling) only into second, all the way home.

      Never had an issue with a Fiat and I’ve driven many. A good (and now ex) friend loves her 500 – which she bought new five years or so ago; she has 75k on it and the only problem so far is the fake chrome trim inside around the radio is peeling.

  4. Best thing I can say about that thing……. it “is” really cute.

    And it would look perfect in Bruce and Trevor’s garage, parked right next to their Miata.

  5. That’s very sad news about the Civic coupe! I have one now (older though). Does that mean that the only small two-door car one can buy in 2021 in the US is the Mini Cooper?

      • That really really REALLY sucks! I cannot stress this enough. I pretty much always buy used cars, usually at least 9 years old, and keep them for at least that many years (my most recent “retired” car was a 1995 5-speed Accord station wagon, which I bought in 2004 and retired last year only because someone hit me).

        I try to have at least one small car in my fleet, which now is a 2004 civic 5-speed with low miles that I bought to replace the retired Honda.

        I guess, at some point in the 2030s, I will end up buying one of the last 2-door 5-speed Civics (i.e. a 2020 model) with low miles.

        In the future, after that, I don’t know what the heck I’ll buy. Whenever I buy a car, I stand firm on # of doors and manual transmission. I don’t care if I have to go 1000 miles away to find it, I will NOT budge on these requirements. In the distant future, I may have no choice but to keep rebuilding and maintaining my old fleet of vehicles.

        • Amen, Dood –

          And here’s another baleful fact: No compact pickups and forget a compact/regular cab pick-up with a long bed and a manual transmission. I plan to keep my ’02 Frontier (it is all of those aforesaid things) forever, or as long as I last!

          • I bought a 2019 Frontier crew cab with the long bed. Very rare, had to go about 200 miles last summer to get what was just about the last one being sold on the east coast I think. Even the newer Frontier is still a pretty simple and basic truck. I’ll be 70 in a couple months, I plan to keep it till the day I die.

    • I started driving in 1993, and at that time, there were plenty of 2-door options for the same car as a 4-door. The general idea back then was that you could get a 4-door if you thought it was necessary (as in you’d have kids or at least a need to use the back seat for people often) but most in my age group wanted a 2-door if they had a choice.

      What do you think is the prevailing reason for the lack of 2-door cars today compared to 1993? People having more kids or living in larger families (doubtful)? Something to do with regulations?

  6. “That’s pretty good [30 mpg] for a car that gets to 60 in under 8 seconds – which is speedier than my ’76 V8 (and 7.5 liters) Trans-Am was when it was new.”

    The good news is that horsepower per liter has roughly doubled in a half century.

    Bad news is that muscle cars weren’t really as hot as we thought back in the day, with their big but inefficient engines and downright scary inadequate suspension and brakes. Nine-and-a-half inch front drum brakes on my old GTO … sounds like a sick joke, but it was real (and damn near got me killed).

    Most stunning is that the contemporary Fiat 500L tips the scales at a hefty 3,254 lbs. That’s only triple the 1,100-lb rear-engined Fiat 500s sold from 1957-1975, with their mighty 479 cc lawn mower motors.

    Cheap, light peoples cars are no longer favored by the Powers That Be. After all, peoples cars were Hitler’s idea … therefore B-A-A-A-A-D-D-D-D!

    • Actually, Henry Ford had the idea for the peoples’ car way before the Der Führer tumbled to it. You might have heard of it: the Model T. (Henry was a wicked ol’ bastard in a lot of ways but certainly deserves credit for putting America on wheels in cars affordable to the average Joe.)

      The thing about engines in the old muscle cars is that there is a lot of untapped potential there. With suitable upgrades they can make some serious horsepower. Brakes and suspension upgrades are available too. Even just installing modern radial tires makes a huge difference in handling. But yeah, in stock form back in the day with crappy bias-ply tires and undersized drim brakes the old muscle cars had a lot of serious deficiencies for anything other than smoking tires and taking off in a straight line.

      As far as the 500L – if I were interested and able to buy something new it sure as shootin’ would not be a FIAT that will, as Scotty Kilmer likes to say, quickly fall apart and become an endless money pit.

      • Hi Jason,

        Yup! Back in the ’60s and ’70s, a zero to 60 run in the sixes was considered hot tamales and a 13 second quarter mile blazing. Most of the “hot” muscle cars were 14 and 15 second cars; granted, traction was limited – but the point stands. A new Camry V6 is quicker without any mods at all than probably 90 percent of all mass market V8 muscle cars; the handful that ran quicker than 13 seconds in the quarter were low-production cars with (usually) very street-iffy engines and not many amenities. One of the few exceptions was the ’70 Buick Regal GSX, which was a legitimate 12 second car with a fairly mild 455, an automatic… and AC!

        • A couple years ago, went to Englishtown NJ for corvette show and drag races. I was flabbergasted at the 1/4 mile times of many of the C2 and C3 vettes. 15, 16, even 17’s! Granted, the 17’s were probably driver error, but still! I think my Frontier can run 15’s.

          • But who cares? EVEN IF the old cars ran 20s – and they didnt, 13s and 14s were the norm once tuned and decent tyres – theyre still cool. They look good, sound good, feel good. Theyve got real metal. You can drive them with no computerised help. I tire of the old ‘my camry can outrun that’ BS. So what; my late model Vette is faster than your recycled japcrap tin box. And its ugly and uninteresting too…tho not nearly so much as your tojo.
            If going fast is all that matters, get a bike or a new Challenger or COPO Camaro. There is more to life than ET. [cant believe I said that!?!? 🙂 ]

            • It wasn’t my point to say that my jap crap is better than your vette. I was just expressing surprise that a lot of the old cars aren’t really as fast as I remember, and most very mundane modern cars are pretty fast. Nonetheless, agreed, there’s nothing quite like feeling the torque and rumble of a good ol’ V8, regardless of the numbers.

                • Uh, when I was young there were nuclear weapons on the street. More than a few died when wrapped around a utility pole.
                  My brother stuffed a 427 Chebbe into a ’53 Studebaker with a B+M turbo hdyro.
                  He was able to scare the piss out of me.
                  You have a 2800 pound car with 550 HP at the axle and it can get hairy.
                  As for myself I went back to cars that could go around corners fast with little horsepower. My biggest mistake was not doing a trade of my LTD for a perfect Lotus Elite coupe that I worshiped from age twelve.

      • Things get better over time. If vehicles don’t get some measured performance boost then what’s the point?

        But then again, it seems like there are plenty of people who don’t want anything to improve over time.

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