New Fiat still adorable but now more practical

Baltimore was the backdrop last week for a Fiat media program introducing its newest family member, a model described as “the first evolution of the brand.”

In 2007, the Italian brand Fiat resurrected its famed and beloved little 500, whose name is far more appealing in Italian: Cinquecento. To really appreciate the difference, you have to know how to pronounce Cinquecento. It’s “ching-kwa-chento,” one of the best-sounding words ever. And to hear it spoken by someone with an Italian accent makes me curse myself for not living in Italy.

Since the introduction of the modern Cinquecento, Fiat has produced multiple versions of the car, including the 500c (convertible), the high-performance 500 Abarth in coupe and convertible forms, and the electric-powered 500e, which arrives at the Fiat Studios in California this summer. Each new version had something special to offer, but none changed the essence of the 500 – that being its impractical smallness.

The newest Cinquecento, the 2014 500L, captures much but not all of the adorableness of the other models, but adds the practicality more buyers are looking for. With four doors and a rear hatch, it has humane seating for four people (five with crowding) and enough room left over for a good-sized cargo area. Twenty-seven inches longer, 6 inches higher and 6 inches wider than the regular 500, the 500L has 42 percent more interior volume and 124 percent more cargo volume. That equals as much room, according to Fiat, as the Chrysler 300 sedan.

Competitors within the 500L’s vehicle class are the Kia Soul, Mini Countryman, Chevrolet Sonic and others. Fiat says the 500L has best-in-class interior volume, front head and shoulder room, and cargo space (with back seats in upright position).

The 500L doesn’t ride on the same chassis as the 500, but on Fiat’s stiffer new “small-wide” platform that promises better driving dynamics and more control at higher speeds.

The passenger cabin is encircled by glass, creating panoramic views of nearly 360 degrees. The light and airy effect can be heightened by opting for the available panoramic sunroof.

Under the hood is the same engine used in the 500 Abarth, a 1.4-liter MultiAir Turbo four-cylinder generating 160 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque. Transmission choices are a six-speed manual or six-speed dual clutch automatic; a conventional six-speed automatic will be added at a later date. EPA ratings are 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway with the manual gearbox, and 24/33 with the dual clutch auto.

There are four trim levels, all with names devoid of any Italian charm: Pop, Easy, Trekking and Lounge – listed in ascending order of price. All models are front-wheel drive.

Standard features on the Pop include power windows and door locks, air conditioning, bi-halogen headlamps, variable-intermittent windshield wipers, remote keyless entry, six-speaker CD/MP3/WMA audio system, Uconnect 5.0, and a suite of safety and stability equipment.

The Trekking model is more SUV-like than the others, designed to attract outdoorsy types with its athletic appearance, which includes moldings and unique fascias.

Uconnect 6.5 with navigation system is available as an option on all but the Pop model, as is a Beats Audio sound system.

Base prices, including an $800 destination charge, are $19,300 for the Pop; $20,995 for the Easy; $21,995 for the Trekking; and $24,995 for the Lounge. A Lounge model equipped with every available option would carry a $27,500 price tag.

The 2014 Fiat 500L is built at the Fiat Automobiles plant in Serbia. It arrives at local dealerships this week.

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