The Problem Child of a Multinational Shotgun Union

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TESTED 2014 Fiat 500L

WHAT IS IT? A fattened-up take on the tiny Fiat 500.

HOW MUCH? Base price of Pop model, $19,900; Lounge version $24,995; as tested, $27,445.

WHAT MAKES IT RUN? A 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder.

HOW QUICK IS IT? With its slow-footed 6-speed automated transmission, the Fiat runs from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in about 9 seconds.

IS IT THIRSTY? Federal mileage estimates are 24 m.p.g. in town and 33 on the highway.

ALTERNATIVES Kia Soul, Mini Countryman and Nissan Juke.

American car enthusiasts often cast an envious eye at Europe, where they see desirable models that never make it to our shores. But we rarely consider that America is often spared from second-rate small cars that, once you drive them, remind you of how good we actually have it.

A case in point is Fiat's 500L. Having established a toehold in America with its 500 microcar, the Italian automaker has taken another page from the Mini playbook by introducing a bigger four-door model, the 500L, which is roughly 27 inches longer, 6 inches wider and 6 inches taller than its supercute predecessor.

Fiat hopes you'll see the 500L as a roomier urban runabout, a charming oddball in the mold of the Countryman and Juke. But they may hope you don't notice that the 500L is built in Serbia, at the site of the factory that once produced the Yugo.

The 500L's Eastern European provenance could easily be overlooked if the car delivered in style and substance. It does not.

Rampantly uncomfortable, dubiously assembled and devoid of fun, the 500L is the kind of car that Europeans drive because they have to, while secretly wishing for a Range Rover.

In this class of car, beauty is certainly up to the beholder. But while I've been won over by the Juke's bulldog strangeness and the Soul's smart, expressive details, the Fiat seems clumsy and derivative. It comes across as the Mini's poor, homely cousin, fresh off the boat.

With 42 percent more interior room than the standard 500, the L's cargo-hauling ability is about its only winning feature. The losing side includes the driving experience; the expanses of rock-hard, gap-ridden plastic; and the long list of ergonomic and engineering goofs. 

Every person who sat in the front seats -- that noun seems too kind to describe the rubbery-upholstered back-breakers -- complained within minutes about the lack of comfort. The top of the short backrest ended between my shoulder blades. The bottom cushions are ridiculously short and are rounded off rather than square. The effect is like balancing on a barstool.

As in the 500, you sit on the Fiat, not in it, in an awkwardly high, buslike position that also exposes an unsightly mess of metal seat rails and hardware.

The mini-Greyhound theme continues with a steering wheel that, if you don't tilt it up into Ralph Kramden position, blocks the driver's view of the gauges.

The Fiat adopts Chrysler's useful UConnect infotainment screen, although this lesser version has a small display and eye-straining map graphics. 

With 160 horses and 184 pound-feet of torque, the MultiAir turbo 4 -- a power plant also found in the Dodge Dart -- should be up to the task. But the engine's force is sapped by turbo lag and a deal-killing dual-clutch automated transmission.

I began to suspect that the gearbox had no corporal connection to the car at all, but was controlled by some spooky outside force -- a Ouija board, perhaps.

The Fiat's tardy responses repeatedly left it victimized in impatient New York traffic. I was left red-faced at one stoplight as a U.P.S. truck beat the Fiat off the line and cut me off for good measure.

As for driving fun, the car's utilitarian heart makes the hot-handling Juke and Countryman feel like Formula One racers by comparison. Even the Korean Soul is bursting with sass compared with this Italian design.

The steering is slacker than a Coachella stoner, and attempts to make the Fiat corner are met with copious body roll and tire squeal. Brakes are simultaneously spongy and grabby.

In fact, in virtually every category -- from assembly quality to interior design to performance -- the Mini, Nissan and Kia leave the Fiat outgunned.

Like the guests at most shotgun weddings, many people murmured good wishes at the Chrysler-Fiat nuptials a few years back, all the while whispering doubts about the newlyweds' long-term prospects.

But if the couple hopes to convince American guests that Fiats deserve their R.S.V.P., it will need to serve up better than stale cannoli. LAWRENCE ULRICH 

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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