Home » Prove Me Wrong: I Just Don’t Think The Fiat 500L Was That Bad

Prove Me Wrong: I Just Don’t Think The Fiat 500L Was That Bad

Fiat500l Top

I realize that this is one of those situations where I’m likely going to find myself very alone. I’m okay with that. Sometimes in life you just need to draw a line in the sand, take a stand, put yourself out there to defend something unpopular, and, even more significantly, unimportant. Sometimes you have to pick a hill that’s so far from the battlefield, so useless and insignificant and generally blissfully forgotten by nearly everyone else, and you have to pick that hill to die on. Or at least get maybe a little nauseous on. This is my hill, and there’s a Fiat 500L parked on it.

500ls

From what I can tell, almost nobody seems to like the 500L, at least not openly, and that never sat right with me. I know it’s not a great car, sure, I’m not completely delusional. But it’s also not a bad car, especially when you consider its whole reasons for existing, and I think it even manages to have a good bit of unexpected character, too, and some surprises. It’s just not as miserable as everyone seems to think, and I’m not even sure what the hell people are thinking it was supposed to be, anyway, and maybe everyone should just shut their big yaps already and drive off in their fucking CR-Vs or Outlanders or whatever other forgettable bullshit they thought was so much better, even when they could have picked up an unwanted 500L for a bag of pimples and and and okay, take it easy, Jayjay. Breathe.

Did you know these were built at the Serbian factory that used to make Yugos? Does that improve your opinion of them? I like that. You can be snob if you want, though. I won’t judge, audibly.

Not many people bought 500Ls, especially in America. According to these numbers, all of, lets see, eight have been sold in America this year. I mean, they went out of production in 2020, so it’s amazing they sold any really. The biggest year was 2014, with 12,413 sold, but by 2020 they only moved 475 of these things. Oof.

And, this is the first production car with a factory espresso-maker option! That didn’t sway some people? It seems to have worked like this:

So, what’s the problem with these cars? You know what I think the problem really is? The 500L was a car that had some very specific, perhaps idiosyncratic, but practical goals, and didn’t bother playing the expected game of the time, which was to be a pretend-rugged or aggressive SUV or crossover.

The whole point of the 500L was telegraphed into the use of the most right-anglest of letters, L, which stood for Large, Light, or Loft, and I think generally those Ls make sense. It was all about interior room and packaging. It had a tall greenhouse with lots of glass in an era when beltlines were getting higher and cars were feeling more and more claustrophobic.

Fiat designer Andreas Wuppinger explained it all quite well in Fiat’s book about the 500L’s design, called Fiat 500L: A Design Approach:

The 500L is characterized by a continuous glazing, large apertures towards the outside and a highly liveable internal space. The design of bodywork inspires a sensation of safety obtained through a high belt line, the accentuated shape of the wheel arches and a raised driving position. As a point of reference we did not, however, consider the SUV, which often has a negative connotation: grandeur, high consumption and almost shielding one from the outside. Here the process is the opposite; I feel protected inside the car but have a great view of the exterior; the clutter of the bodywork is reduced but the space available inside is maximized.

They deliberately weren’t just trying to make another me-too SUV, they had a plan. A plan based on the humble yet important root question of what the 500L would be for: moving people and their shit from place to place, usually over paved roads. That’s it! It’s designing a car from first principles! And what the hell is wrong with that?

This book also has some visuals I don’t quite get:

Topo500cameras

So.., the Topolino is like an old camera, and the original 500 is like a newer camera? Because of how it goes out instead of in? Okay.

Are the people who bought RAV4s so much better, choosing bigger wheels and less interior space and more limited visibility and a less-friendly look because, what, they’re gonna take the RAV4 out into the desert and fight for water against the People Of The Last Oil Derrick? No, they’re not. They’re going to drive to Trader Joe’s with one eye on their phone like the rest of us dipshits. At least the 500L had the dignity to be designed for the job it would actually do.

It was tall overall, with a high seating position and a cargo area with a divider to make multiple stories, and the interior was a sort of pleasant and open place to be. Here, look:

The designers said their inspiration for the interior was Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye!

Europe even got an extended-wheelbase version with three rows that could seat seven. Seven people.

Also, Look at this novel double-A-pillar design! Almost every other car has a fat, beefy A-pillar right there, and it gets in your view and makes you long for the days of tiny, thin, elegant pillars, when life was cheap and a car wreck meant you’d spend the rest of your days as a voice emanating from a burlap sack.

Int2

The 500L solves this problem with that split A-pillar, giving you great corner visibility! I liked it, when I drove one! Who else does that?

I think a lot of what I respect about he 500L is that it takes inspiration from one of the first bigger-on-the-inside wonders of packaging, the Fiat Multipla. Both the original and the re-born one:

Mult Insp1

I think they’re brilliant inspirations, though I do really wish they stuck to their guns more when it came to the updated design. Look at those first sketches!

Multipla Evo

Would it have sold better if they were more daring and stuck to a true one-box design? Maybe not, but it’d have been cool as hell, I think.

Look, I’m just going to come out and say it: the failure of the 500L is not its fault, it’s yours. Well, I guess ours, because I didn’t buy one either. But I respect what it was trying to do, which was just its fucking job. It was honest and earnest, not some goofy poser in brand-new hiking boots and a camo vest like every other SUV or crossover on the market.

The 500L was an affable, smiling goofball that brought everything you forgot to bring on your camping trip. It wasn’t cool because it didn’t give a shit about being cool – and it still doesn’t. Maybe you felt a little silly being seen with it, but it did everything you asked of it, easily.

And, you could get it in a stick shift and in fun, bright, real colors. Yellow, red, even a real brown. Yes, a brown manual wagon was possible.

Rearish

When I drove a manual 500L way back, I thought it reminded me of my Scion xB: useful, practical, airy, open, comfortable, and surprisingly fun. Humble, unpretentious, non-judgemental. The 500L was not a dickhead. And I think that’s not something you can say about many, many cars on the market today. [Editor’s Note: I thought the shifter felt like a toy — slidey, with little notchiness/feedback. But I didn’t hate the car. -DT]. 

So, sure, go ahead and laugh at the 500L. Call it names, roll your eyes, whatever makes you feel better. The truth is the 500L is secure with who it is, and if you have enough security of your own to drive one, and really understand the point of the thing, I bet you’d like it. I mean, how much more invigorating is driving a Nissan Rogue, anyway? It’s not.

The 500L got a raw deal. It’s just not as bad as everyone says. So there.

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90 Responses

  1. I’ve driven a couple 500Ls and was pleasantly surprised how honest and pleasant they were to drive.

    Great outward visibility and cargo room in a small footprint basically doesn’t exist anymore. The 500L was obviously designed from the inside out and it shows.

    Of course, the way it that shows also resulted in it being so hideous that it scared people away. Awkward from every angle would be a charitable description.

    And yet, I kinda want one. Used ones are still kinda dirt cheap considering the utility they provide. The 5-speed versions were actually really fun to drive in a goofy way.

  2. We considered one (I love a car you can actually see out of), but the reputation for poor quality and the odd, bloaty front and back views turned us off. Ended up going with a Mini Clubman S, which isn’t far from it in terms of practical design considerations but is much more visually appealing (IMO).

  3. But why would the average Joe / Jane in AmeriKa buy one? An off the wall answer for a question no one was asking.

    I drove a couple of them in France. With a diesel, rather fun to flog along the countryside.

  4. There’s a big elephant in the room here:

    Reliability

    The most basic expectation of any vehicle is to get you from point A to point B, and based on multiple reliability reports, the 500L failed to accomplish this more often than pretty much any other new vehicle.
    This is enough to drop it from the shopping list of any sensible person on a budget.
    There are cars that are worth living with the sacrifice of often being broken. If a Lotus Elise somehow turned out to be an unreliable piece of shit I would still be interested, because it’s a very special and fun car.
    Something that’s trying to be a practical family car with a bit of style really has no excuse for having exotic supercar reliability.

    And yes, I’m a slightly offended Rav4 owner (it was a hand me down). The other day I put in a new rear driveshaft to restore awd, so that when the snow hits I can engage the diff lock and powerslide my way home during my 2am commute.
    Ok I’m probably not a typical Rav4 owner.

  5. I wanted one, but it doesn’t look nearly as sharp as the 500. I probably would’ve test drove one if it were made by Honda or Toyota. I feel like Fiats aren’t the maintenance headache they used to be, but I’ve become accustomed to carefree ownership and don’t quite trust Fiat yet.

    It’s still on my list of cars I’m considering for my current want, which is a reasonably efficient commuter that’ll haul a pair of kayaks on top, and a hitch mount bike carrier on the back. And able to comfortably pull a 750 lb trailer. Also, no CVTs other than Toyota HSD Hybrid types.

    1. This exactly. It’s not a 500. Or, it’s a 500 that’s eaten way too many pies.

      Calling it a 500 is such a blatant, shameless, marketing gimmick that it ruins everything else that might be to like about the car.

      Had they called it a Fiat 600 Multipla, and dialed down the 500 retro-ness a tad or two (there’s only room for one outright retro car in a lineup. It’s the law.), it would have been a totally acceptable little car.

      1. Just how the Mustang Mach-E is not a Mustang, and the rumored Corvette SUV is never going to be a Corvette (and while I’m at it: No, the current mid-engined, high-revving, trunk-barely-large-enough-for-two-umbrellas, “Corvette” is not a proper ‘Vette either).

  6. Regarding the cameras, I think I have an answer:

    Old folding roll film cameras, like in the first diagram, have terrible viewfinders — that angled dealy on the upper right of the front board with the lens is a 45-degree silvered prism approximating the format coverage in a tiny, dim and nearly illegible window using a plus-shaped cutout to account for landscape or portrait depending on how you rotate the finder. A secondary “sports” viewfinder uses the peephole and wire loop on the right-hand side of the camera to display an even more approximate but unobstructed view of the frame.

    The lower camera, a Leica M3, is widely regarded as having the brightest and clearest viewfinder of any camera ever made.

    So my guess is the comparison has to do with cabin visibility.

  7. My thought is that,as Jason says it’s quite good at being the car it’s designed to be. What makes me dislike is that they called it a 500 and not a multipla which is what it actually is.

  8. Torch, I can’t prove you wrong! I rented one of these this last summer in Florida and drove it all over from Clearwater to Coca Beach and back. It had ample power for the five of us, held all of our luggage, and was great on gas for the size. All in a brilliantly designed, refreshing package. Would I rent it again or consider buying one? Yes, but not for five people again. That was a little nuts.

    Compared to the Jeep Renegade this is so much more fun to drive even though it’s essentially the same car. If I didn’t want a Ford Maverick for my next purchase I would consider the 500L with no questions asked.

  9. I know this was developed as a global car, but from an American perspective, the 500L was just a poor fit for the market. Americans don’t buy small MPVs unless they have a skin-deep veneer of truckiness and this one is certainly not good enough to reverse that trend. The name tie-in with the also unpopular in this market 500 was forced and pointless. Things like the mustang Mach-E make sense only because Americans actually buy mustangs and the name has brand equity in this market. No one bought 500s in the states and the name means nothing to 90%+ of Americans.

    I don’t think people actively hate these as much as it was received with a resounding “meh”. I wish it was better and more interesting. If it was a success, maybe it would open the American market up to more variety instead of all cuv. cuv, truck, cuv, truck as it is currently. I think it’s an uphill battle to get Americans to consider this kind of car and it will take a truly exceptional vehicle for that to happen.

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