Driver's Seat.: 2014 Fiat 500L Lounge is like the bad cousin


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2014 Fiat 500L Lounge: something a little bigger from the Mediterranean.

Price: $27,445 as tested. (A base model can be had for $19,195.)

Conventional wisdom: Fix It Again, Tony? Those '70s memories still linger, and the track record of this decade's 500 hasn't been hot. Also, Consumer Reports noted the 500L's "jerky transmission, stiff ride ... uncomfortable front seats, poor view of instruments." Are they just being cranky?

Marketer's pitch: "The Italians are coming." Watch those stodgy Pilgrims get some style in the video introduction of the 500L. "This is gonna be so much better than the [Boston] Tea Party."

Reality: Not so sure.

Made for the family? At first glance, this car should have everything we look for. It's a tall box that sits people upright. It looks like a cousin of our Kia Soul. Fortunately, Kia has upgraded its Soul for 2014 as well, so we'll be able to offer back-to-back comparisons of the two models.

Welcoming: I was looking forward to getting the 500L. It cuts a pretty profile, and the interior is beautiful. The leather is gorgeous, the dashboard is attractive and the surround of windows looks pleasant and inviting.

Functionality: But like a bad date with an attractive but vapid beauty, the 500L and I got off to an unpleasant start.

It's midnight and the fleet guys left it for me two blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia. I just passed a guy rooting through a Dumpster, and the usual array of sketchy-looking characters is hanging around the street corners. All I want to do is get in the car and lock it. Good luck with that. The locks are not on the doors. The locks are not part of the door handle, like they are in the Fiat 500. They're not on the center console.

No, the door lock button is on the dashboard, next to the hazard lights. Of course.

I confess that since then, I have found other cars that have this same lock placement -- the Chevrolet Cruze for example.

Seats: The inviting, lovely leather? Even 13-year-old Sturgis Kid 4.0 dubbed the seats rocklike. Add another 31 years' worth of sitting and imagine how I feel. A button on the side adjusts the lumbar support, but even pressed all the way back it's still too lumbary for me. If you like Honda's seats, you ought to like these.

Except you won't. The manual recline adjustment is on a tiny, hard-to-reach lever, and the seat back doesn't automatically spring forward when you want to move it up. So while sitting forward and contorting your arm to move the lever, contort the other arm to move the seat back forward. Snarl.

Dashboard: When I entered the 500L, the gauges were set to have the speed on a digital readout. This, in fact, is about the only way I could see the speed. The actual analog speedometer gauge seems a long way from the driver, and features tiny numbers in a difficult font behind a large plastic circle. Lining up the steering wheel for a good sight line was difficult as well.

Change the display and a driver can see fuel economy, trip odometer and other information -- all of which could be included in the first display if Fiat had thought to utilize the space.

Outside the box: You'd think a big, square box would be roomy, but rear headroom manages to be tight. Really. And storage space is not great. Consumer Reports disagrees with me here, but this is not as spacious as the Soul in my driveway.

Up to speed: The 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo four-cylinder offers rocket ship acceleration, even better than the upgraded Soul's 2.0-liter engine.

Shifty: Unfortunately, I found the 6-speed twin clutch shiftable automatic transmission to be shaky when cold. But otherwise I thought it performed its tasks just fine, although CR was more disappointed with it overall.

On the road: The 500L projects minor changes in road surface and is pretty horrible on rough construction zones (which we natives simply call "Pennsylvania"). This was actually a lot like the 2013 Kia Soul.

Fuel economy: I observed 25 mpg in a week of highway-heavy driving.

Where it's built: Kragujevac, Serbia

How it's built: The 500L hasn't gotten a predicted reliability score yet from Consumer Reports, but the 500's is poor.

In the end: I called it a vehicle that could be thought of as a cousin for the Seat Family Kia Soul. Perhaps, but sadly it's the bad cousin -- the one who hosts the family reunion but lets his unruly dogs jump all over the guests for the entire visit, and who has nice-looking furniture but none of the pieces feel right or are arranged in any useful conversational way.

Next week: How does the similarly shaped Kia Soul stack up?


Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at mrdriversseat@gmail.com

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