all-new Fiat 500L is in a quirky "toaster" class of
subcompact cars that also includes the Nissan Cube and Juke,
and the Scion xB.
redesigned Soul and Fiat’s all-new 500L are the latest models in
the quirky "toaster" class of sub-compact cars.
square box riding on a car platform. The general idea is combine the
comfort and efficiency of a small car with the functionality of a
sport utility vehicle or crossover. And style? Let’s just say the
valet will be parking these behind the restaurant. Next to his car.
The success of
these vehicles has been mixed. Honda’s Element and the Scion xB,
made by Toyota, were the founding members back in 2003. They enjoyed
several years of healthy sales. But Honda discontinued the Element
after 2011, and by 2013 sales of the Scion xB had dwindled to about
a third of their peak numbers, according to Edmunds.com.
went on sale in 2009, and a year later it began dominating the
segment and never looked back. With a savvy mix of street cred,
value and usability, the Soul was one of the most popular models on
Kia’s lot in 2013, pulling in more than 118,000 sales.
second-generation version, Kia clearly didn’t want to mess with
success. The South Korean automaker gave the 2014 Soul a thorough,
yet subtle, update. It’s a smidge bigger in nearly every
dimension, and it rides on a new front-wheel-drive chassis. The
styling has been tweaked, but from a distance you’ll need your
glasses to tell the difference between old and new.
is the newest toaster in the kitchen. Picking up where the tiny 500
leaves off, the 500L is an all-new four-door model that Fiat hopes
will expand its brand’s reach. The fact that Mini started with
just the Cooper and now sells seven different body styles is not
lost on Fiat.
So with one
newcomer to the field and one fan favorite hoping to keep its crown,
we grabbed a 500L and Soul to see what’s what. A comparison test
seemed logical — until we actually drove these cars, and instantly
realized there’s no comparison.
One of these
new squares is exemplary. The other one should never have been let
out of the factory.
FIAT 500L: We’ll
get right to the point. This is one of the worst new cars we’ve
driven in a long time. Nearly every aspect of this car — from the
drivetrain, to the interior, to the design — is a mess.
This was more
than a little surprising. On paper, the 500L seems to have a lot
going for it. Under the 500L’s short hood is the same 1.4-liter
turbocharged four-cylinder engine that Fiat uses in the extra-spicy
500 Abarth. In the 500L, it makes 160 horsepower and 184 pound-feet
of torque. Our tester matched this engine with the six-speed
dual-clutch transmission, a $1,350 option.
And yet this
pairing sapped all of the joy out of driving. There was too much
turbo lag to get any quick acceleration from a stop. Once the engine
had revved enough to generate decent power, it was loud and coarse.
The transmission lurched and shuddered where its contemporaries
breeze through shifts with imperceptible quickness.
interior is an ergonomic nightmare. The seats have all the comfort
and support of a cast-iron skillet. The climate controls are
positioned too low on the dashboard to see during the day. The
shoddy construction and hard plastics felt cut-rate and anything but
is flanked by two poorly positioned A-pillars (the piece of metal
that runs from the hood to the roof) on either side. This meant less
visibility, giving the impression of driving some kind of cranky
shuttle bus or London taxi. It looks like one from the outside too.
that a new car these days has so few redeeming qualities, and we had
to search to find them. The navigation system is inexpensive. That
was nice. Tall people have enough room in the back seat, something
you can’t say for Fiat’s smaller 500.
The 500L is
more fuel efficient than the Soul, putting up 24 miles per gallon in
the city and 33 mpg on the highway against the Kia’s 23/31
numbers. And the 500L does manage to throw off a slightly upmarket
But for a
brand looking to leverage its Italian roots while expanding into new
segments, the 500L misses the mark by miles. Maybe it’s the car’s
providence: The 500L is assembled at the same Serbian site where the
Yugo was built.
might as well be built on a gravesite.
Everything the Fiat did wrong, this refreshed Kia did right. This is
a happy car. A week of testing an obnoxiously yellow version left us
willing to overlook the Soul’s funky styling.
starts with the drivetrain. Most Souls (excluding the base model)
come with a 2.0-liter direct-injected, four-cylinder engine that
makes 164 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. The engine is
paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.
The duo was
smooth and quiet, with plenty of power to move the Soul around. With
help from a stiffer and lighter chassis, it handles better than the
500L, which leaned too much in turns. The seating position is
comfortable and offers a great view of the road.
Soul is more than 4 inches shorter than the 500L, the Kia trumps the
Fiat’s in interior space for both passengers and cargo. Instead of
trying to be too stylish or hip, the dashboard is remarkably
approachable and intuitive. Nearly any button needed was right where
you expected it, and the touch-screen navigation system remains one
of the easiest to use in the industry.
with the 500L, our complaints with the Soul’s interior are
remarkably trivial. The button for the panoramic moon roof is stupid
and made it impossible to close the glass but not the sunshade. And
we could live without the goofy speakers that would glow a variety
of colors depending on the music. At least you can turn this feature
came with everything on Kia’s option menu: heated and cooled front
seats, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, the massive
panoramic sunroof, touch-screen navigation system, backup camera,
HID headlights, leather seats, etc.
its sticker price to $26,195. While the Fiat 500L Easy we tested
rang in cheaper ($24,445), it also came with less (no leather,
heated seats, heated steering wheel, or moon roof). Pile the same
goodies onto the Fiat, and it actually ends up costing about $1,000
more than our Kia.
hunters should note that the cheapest Fiat 500L (with a six-speed
manual transmission) starts at $19,995, while the cheapest Soul
(with the 2.0-liter engine) sells for $18,995.
out as a comparison between two potentially worthy adversaries ended
as anything but. Kia’s new Soul deftly improves what made it a
darling with consumers.
meanwhile, does itself no favors by bringing the 500L to the U.S., a
market that is still getting to know the brand after decades of
absence. This is a rough reintroduction, and Fiat should have known
better. We’re not a group that likes the smell of a Yugo.
2014 KIA SOUL
Times take: The best toaster-on-wheels you can put in your garage
Smooth drivetrain, useful interior, easy to live with
doesn’t change much from predecessor; still funky looking
type: 4-door subcompact crossover hatchback
2.0-liter, direct-injected, inline four-cylinder engine,
time: 8.1 seconds, according to Car and Driver
economy rating: 23 mpg city, 31 mpg highway
include destination charge.
2014 FIAT 500L
Times take: Don’t buy this car; Fiat should have never let it out
of the factory
Efficient engine, useful space for five adults
Clunky engine and transmission pairing, uncomfortable seats, sloppy
interior and exterior design
type: 4-door subcompact crossover hatchback
1.4-liter, turbocharged inline four cylinder, front-wheel-drive
six-speed dual-clutch automated manual
time: 8.9 seconds, according to Car and Driver
economy rating: 24 mpg city, 33 mpg highway
include destination charge.