Test Drive: Fiat 500L is surprisingly roomy

Most retro-styled cars are a little hard to live with because they emphasize form over function. A notable exception is the Fiat 500L, a diminutive 5-door hatchback that’s surprisingly accommodating for passengers and cargo. It’s not to be confused with the Fiat 500, a tiny 2-door sedan from which the 500L derives its styling cues.

We test-drove a black-and-yellow 500L Trekking, which fills the gap between the base Pop and the top-of-the-line Lounge. Its major strengths are its roomy back seat, impressive cargo capacity, its eye-catching looks and Italian personality.

Reliability and build quality have been issues for the 500L. In 2016, Consumer Reports rated the 500L first among the 20 least reliable cars. But there’s grounds for hope things are improving. Fiat Chrysler eliminated a major sore spot by replacing a troublesome dual-clutch automatic transmission with a conventional, Japanese-built 6-speed shiftable unit. Still, we couldn’t help but notice the 500L is assembled in Kragujevac, Serbia, home of the Yugo.

We detected no evidence that our test car was destined to be some future owner’s source of despair; nor did we observe any of the build-quality problems others have noted. The 500L felt tight and solid, and everything worked as it should.

In Trekking trim, the 500L had a sticker price of $25,460, with just two options adding $1,140 to the bottom line. The car was well-equipped for the price. Among its standard features were a rear-view camera, Fiat Chrysler’s UConnect infotainment system, Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto capability, integrated voice command with Bluetooth, heated front seats, satellite radio, power heated exterior mirrors and cruise control. It was powered by a 1.4-liter, 160-horsepower turbocharged inline Four.

The back seat easily accommodated a 6-foot passenger, even with the front seat in its rear-most position. Behind the rear seat is a spacious cargo compartment with a tonneau cover and shelf, adding to the car’s versatility. In front, there’s plenty of storage space for small items, including a center console, map pockets, cup holders and two glove boxes. Legroom for drivers and front passengers is ample.

The engine is rated at 160 horsepower but feels less powerful, and can be quite noisy under hard acceleration. Its fuel-economy rating is doubly disappointing: Not only is it rated at only 22 mpg in the city, 30 highway, but it requires premium gasoline. The Honda HR-V, to name one major player in the subcompact-crossover field, is rated at 34 mpg on the highway and consumes regular unleaded fuel.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 500L the top rating of “Good” in every test except the small-overlap frontal crash, for which the car received a rating of “Poor.” Government crash-test results are not available.

Through July, the 500L was selling a little better than it did in 2017, when U.S. sales reached 1,664. The car’s best year was 2014, when 12,413 were sold.

2018 Fiat 500L Trekking

Price: $25,460

Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged inline Four, 160 horsepower, 184 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 6-speed shiftable automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Weight: 3,254 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, Chapman strut rear

Wheels: 17-in. aluminum

Tires: 225/45R17 all-season

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 22.4 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 68 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 13.2 gal.

Fuel economy: 22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway

Fuel type: premium unleaded gasoline

Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.