| 1:14 PM EST

Little Big Car: The 2014 Fiat 500L

The 2014 Fiat 500L is a larger version of what is arguably a quintessentially Italian car, the 500, or Cinquecento. Some companies talk about “expanding their lineup.” This is real expansion.
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Funny thing about the Fiat 500. This Italian car is made in two factories. One is in Poland. The other is in Mexico.

Perhaps in keeping with this trend, the Fiat 500L isn’t built in Italy, either.

Rather, it is being manufactured in a 1.4-million ft2 facility in Kragujevac. That’s in Serbia. The company spent some €1 billion to prep the factory—everything from a new roof to new production systems—during a three-year period. According to Phil Jansen, Fiat 500L vehicle line executive, it is one of the most modern factories in the world, thanks to this complete transformation of what had been on site.

And what had been on site is of some historical interest: the Yugo was once built in Kragujevac. Yes, that Yugo.

Conceptually, Fiat engineers kept what was good about the Yugo—the structure of the plant that it had been manufactured in—and then changed everything else.

Arguably, there is something akin to that as regards the Fiat 500L. They’ve kept what is charming about the Cinquecento and pretty much changed everything else.

Listen to Roberto Giolito, head of Fiat Brand Design: “Like the Fiat 500, the all-new Fiat 500L’s strength and design personality traits are strong attributes to the iconicity of the Cinquecento family. With its versatility through design innovation, our new five-passenger Cinquecento further develops the brand identification while paying homage to clever city-friendly vehicles in Fiat’s history.” 

Heritage, meet freshness.

According to Fiat design, this isn’t simply about the Fiat 500 of 2007 (the version that is out there now) nor even the 500 of 1957 (which the ’07 Fiat 500 plays homage to). The 500L has genetic material that comes from the 1956 Fiat 600 Multipla, the 1972 Fiat 127, the 1980 Panda, the 1983 Uno, and the 1998 Multipla.

Chances are, however, unless one is a Fiatnista, chances are the point of recognition will be with the ’07 500, at least the front of the two vehicles, as there is a clear familial resemblance with the shape of the headlamps and the grille form. While there are some similarities around back, these are more like hints than features.

Inside, the 500L is like its smaller sibling, with a combination of colors, materials and textures executed in such a way that there is clear evidence of the flair and thoughtfulness that are characteristic of Italian design, but more along the lines of Alessi than Armani.

While they kept the structure of the Kragujevac plant, that is not the case with the 500L: they gave it all new bones. Jansen says this is a new architecture in the Fiat lineup, named, descriptively, “small-wide.” It is a B-segment vehicle that is capable of seating five. The 500L is the first vehicle that Fiat is basing on small-wide and it is far from being the last, given the high levels of torsional stiffness that has been engineered into the vehicle; while jumbo compared with the 500, realize that this is still a comparatively small car (wheelbase: 102.8 in.; length: 167.3 in.; width (w/o mirrors): 69.8 in.; height: 65.7 in.), and making something this small have a fundamental solidity takes a whole lot of engineering, whether this takes the form of extensive structural simulations or the careful deployment of ultrahigh strength steels. Jansen: “With its ultra-rigid body design, we were able to dial-in the chassis for an exceptional handling experience without compromising interior quietness and ride comfort.”

Sure, you can make something stiff and solid, make something with superb torsional rigidity, but you also want to develop something that isn’t going to shake the fillings out of the driver’s mouth when driving over rough pavement. Especially as the 500L is a car that’s built to accommodate more people, like families, and unless the members of that family are heavily into rally cross, quietness and comfort are key. (Safety? It goes without saying. Fiat designed and engineered the car with an eye toward international crash regulations and third-party assessments.)

So how do you deliver on quietness? You use laminated acoustic windshield glass. Body-cavity foam throughout the body-in-white. Deploy under-flush roll formed door edges, and then use triple seal liners to boot. You install acoustic wheel-well liners. And you end up with a car that has an articulation index of 72%. 

How do you deliver on comfort? This one is somewhat more interesting from the standpoint of the DNA of the Fiat 500. Of the versions of the 500, the Arbath is the one that screams Prestazione (Performance). The Arbath uses Koni frequency selective damping (FSD) front strut and rear shock absorbers. The FSD system filters out high-frequency suspension inputs from uneven road surfaces such that there is controlled smoothness; this isn’t a case of a wallowing ride. The 500L uses the Koni FSD system.

In addition to which, the 500L has a MacPherson front-suspension design in the front and a rear twist-beam axle structure (no anti-roll bar necessary). Also in the front is a cross member that reduces NVH while providing an additional path for crash-energy management. The 500L is an international car, on sale in a wide array of markets. The North American versions get something special: specially tuned bushings that not only provide comfort and control, but have the durability necessary to last on bad road surfaces (remember: Phil Jansen and many of his engineering colleagues live in Michigan, so they know a little something about that).

The 500L has something else in common with the Arbath: it is offered with a 1.4-
liter MultiAir Turbo engine. The engine in the 500L is mated to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed Euro Twin Clutch automatic. It provides 160 hp and 184 lb-
ft of torque. The engine has a cast-iron block, aluminum alloy head, and aluminum alloy bed plate. The single turbo-charger on the Arbath is there to help the car go like a bat out of the Inferno. Its purpose in the 500L is somewhat more practical: as this is a bigger car, efficient engineering or not, it has greater mass than its track-oriented sibling (with the automatic it has a curb weight of 3,254 lb.), so the turbo is there to help (a) move the car with authority, if not alacrity, and (b) help provide fuel economy by taking advantage of the otherwise-wasted heated exhaust gas (EPA estimated highway fuel economy: 33 mpg).

The design principle used for the development of the 500L is: “Simply More.”

And it is that.