Decoding Design

Fiat's 500L gets lukewarm reception at Geneva Auto Show

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Fiat hopes North American drivers looking for a family-friendly version of its compact 500 will turn to the roomier 500L. Critics aren't so sure.

Fiat needs a hit in the United States. It brought us the Fiat 500 with a J-Lo ad campaign last year, but that struck a sour note and sales failed to meet expectations.  It followed with a Cabrio variant and then the manlier Abath 500, which is currently being hawked by none other than a housebound Charlie Sheen. Next up: The 500L. Think of it as a really, really small SUV.  It's also an answer to the Mini Countryman, just as the 500 echoes the look of the Mini Cooper.

The covers came off the 500L at the Geneva Auto Show last week. And the reaction? Meh. After eyeing the new rig, Autoblog says Fiat traded in too much of the 500's cuteness without adding enough utility. It's longer than the 500 (the L stands for long) but only longer enough so that it sports four doors instead of the 500's two doors. It's also half a foot wider. And seats for five passengers rather than four in the 500.

"It seems tall and teetering where the 500 hatch is planted and robust," says CarDesignNews. I concur. The 500L lost the signature look of the 500.

From a design perspective, the challenge Fiat faced was to make the interior feel as large and airy as possible, given the overall size of the vehicle. Toward this end, the company added a generous amount of glass. It has seamless glazing around the front and back pillars as well as the largest glass roof in its category, according to Fiat.

Drivers who are picky about colors will rejoice. The Fiat 500L will come with a mind-boggling 30 exterior paint choices.

The 500L will land first in Europe, during the fourth quarter, with the option of either a super-efficient TwinAir or 1.4-liter gas engine, or Fiat's 1.3 MultiJet II turbodiesel engine. Fiat has not yet said when it'll come to the North American market, other whether we'll have the turbodiesel (though that's doubtful). CNET's Brian Cooney hopes the 500L will come with something more robust than the 1.4-liter option, calling it barely enough for the 500.

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure