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Fiat 500L: It isnt what youd expect
The four-door Fiat 500L is 27 inches longer and six inches wider and taller than the two-door, subcompact 500 coupe. - photo by Photo Contributed

I don’t know what I expected when I got into the Fiat 500L, but it’s better than I thought it would be. It feels substantial, it’s fairly functional and almost fun to drive.

For those who adopted the subcompact Fiat 500, the 500L wagon is 27 inches longer and will be the family car, the gear hauler, the people mover.

It is sold in four front-wheel-drive models with a starting price of $19,900, including the $800 freight charge from Serbia.

All come with a 160-horsepower, turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed transmission — manual or six-speed automatic, a dual clutch automated manual. All-wheel-drive will be available for 2014.

The midlevel Trekking ($21,995) is more sporty than outdoorsy with gray trim exterior elements and a black-and-brown leather interior. The top-line Lounge, today’s test car, was $25,995 with the Beats six-speaker audio upgrade ($500), 17-inch painted alloy wheels ($500) and the Premier package, $1,745, which included Chrysler’s very usable Uconnect infotainment system with 6.5-inch touchscreen, navigation system and rearview camera.

Pricing includes a bumper-to-bumper warranty of 4-years/50,000-miles with roadside assistance.

Where the subcompact 500 two-door has the imprint of an economy car, the 500L is richer. The list of standard Lounge features outweighs the sticker price and there are appealing Chrysler-grade materials to every surface that is seen, felt or sat upon. The headliner is woven fabric and there are plenty of usable storage areas, including a double glove box, and some nifty extras, such as a conversation mirror.

The 500L has a distinctly Euro-efficient interior, even otherworldly. The high-roof body style has split pillars at the windshield, which greatly helps views over-the-hood and fenders, and lends a space-podlike presence.

There are 40.7 inches of front headroom without the dual pane moonroof, which trims hair space by just a couple tenths.

Cabin controls are simple, accessed by three large dials for AC, vent and fan. The front seats are Chrysler-class for support and there is a meaty, leather-wrapped steering wheel. Oddly, the front seat-belt anchors are not height adjustable at the door pillars.

The split windshield pillars help views over the fenders and give the impression of a space shuttle.

The tall-riding back seat has a flat floor, deep footroom and more than three feet of legroom. There is a center head restraint and a fold-down armrest. The seatback does not recline, such as for the comfort of sleeping children, but the angle is relaxed and the seat easily flips and tumbles to expand cargo space.

There is a secure 22.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seat. And the floor is height adjustable by about six inches or so. Under the floor is the tire-inflator system (no spare) and the optional Beats audio subwoofer, which takes a chunk of basement space.

The ride quality is robust with a suspension that responds well in energetic cornering, though it is not sport tuned. The turning circle is almost microscopic at 32.3 feet.

The cabin is well soundproofed and the infrastructure filters out harshness. There wasn’t one squeak, rattley seatback, itchy sound or buzz to be heard. Even wind noise isn’t objectionable for such a blunt object.

It’s just the powertrain calibration that leaves the 500L laboring at the launch.

Off-the-line acceleration is more like that of a continuously variable transmission with much rubber-banding as the turbo builds boost and begins to motivate the 3,254 -pound wagon. Impatience will bring a heavier push on the throttle and then the little-engine-that-could mainlines power, sending the front tires spinning and the driver grabbing the wheel. The driver will learn to anticipate the need for power. There is no Sport mode, which could diminish the power lag, and while the transmission can be shifted manually, there are no steering-wheel shifters.

Fuel economy on the recommended premium fuel is 24 mpg city and 33 highway. I was averaging 27 to almost 28 for combined mileage, which matches the EPA’s 27 mpg.

The Americanization of an immigrant vehicle is always challenging, but the 500L brings a smart transfer of new ideas and creative solutions.