Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced the Fiat 500L and 124 Spider won’t live to see the 2021 model year. I happened to mention to my colleagues at MotorTrend (via Slack, of course, because this is still 2020) that I would miss both cars, particularly the former. This incited an avalanche of abuse directed toward both the Fiat 500L and me.
“A piglet,” editor in chief Mark Rechtin wrote. “An imported car so bad even Consumer Reports hated it.”
“A boring car so bad even Consumer Reports hated it,” features editor Christian Seabaugh corrected.
“It looked like an upside-down encephalitic dumpster that careened through a Crayola factory,” editorial director of daily content Erik Johnson chimed in.
“Horrible,” senior features editor Jonny Lieberman added. “One of the worst cars of the past decade. If Gold writes ANYTHING positive about it, please DVD commentary it with, ‘These INSANE views do not represent the hardworking men and women of MotorTrend. They’re from the bile duct of a career contrarian. ‘”
Lieberman might be right about me, but he’s wrong about the Fiat 500L.
Fiat 500L: Fishbowl in the Dark
It’s true, I am a contrarian, and I’m damn proud of it. I’ve reviewed cars for more than twenty years, and I’m tired of carbon copies. The Fiat 500L was different. And it was useful. It was small like a hatchback; tall like an SUV; and one-box-ish like a minivan. By going vertical rather than horizontal, the Fiat 500L maximized what interior space it had, while minimizing its exterior shadow. Admittedly, that combination did make for a rather steep climb into the back seat. No matter, your elderly aunt has enough money to take an Uber, right?
Many of the family-friendly Fiat 500L’s foes likened it to sitting in a fishbowl, particularly if you added its available glass roof. Yes, the 500L made you feel as if you were surrounded by glass, and what, exactly, is the problem with that? The way I see it, the 500L let you enjoy all the benefits of being outdoors, but without the massive inconvenience of actually being outdoors. Win-win in my book.
The 500L even had a somewhat-interesting powertrain: the 160-hp turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine Fiat also crammed under the hood of the 500 Abarth. For a while, you could get the 500L with a stick-shift, too. Unfortunately, there was also a period the 500L was fit with an uncommonly awful dual-clutch automatic transmission. Fiat eventually settled on an Aisin-sourced six-speed automatic gearbox, which, if not terribly interesting, was at least relatively drama-free.
And what of the styling? Ugly, some say. Different, I say. To quote Ani DiFranco, “I think pretty is nice, but I’d rather see something new.”
Fiat 500L: If It Ain’t Broke
Am I alone in thinking the 500L was a nifty little car? Among my peers, perhaps. But if you look at owner reviews or talk to people who actually bought or leased 500Ls (and I’ve done both—read reviews and talked to owners, that is, not actually bought or leased a 500L; I may be a contrarian, but I’m not an idiot), you’ll find that 500L owners generally really liked their little Fiat fishbowls. Except when the cars were broken, of course.
Unfortunately, the typical Fiat 500L seemed to break down rather often. Fiat isn’t exactly known for designing vehicles of the most exacting Toyota-like quality, and the Italian brand basically kneecapped the 500L by farming its assembly out to Fiat Serbia. This joint partnership between FCA and the Serbian government was resurrected from the remains of Zastava, the villains who gave us the Yugo, or at least they did until the plant was “accidentally” bombed by NATO. (I’ve long suspected that particular salvo was flown by former Yugo owners.) The Yugo was actually a Fiat design, so making Italian cars even worse is something of a long-time Serbian tradition.
But when the 500L worked, it was quite wonderful, and even some of my intrepid colleagues have admitted that on a scale ranging from solid gold to stinky dog turd, the 500L at least leaned somewhat toward the precious-metal side. “Driving it is just fine,” enthused technical director Frank Markus in a 2017 review, and while I wasn’t there as a witness, I have it on good authority that he was smiling when he typed that.
I suppose the right thing now would be to buy a 500L of my own, preferably one with a manual transmission, but I shall not. One can only endure so much punishment, and I think the ridicule of my colleagues over my regard for the Fiat 500L is burden enough. Still, I’ve enjoyed admiring the 500L from afar, and I will genuinely miss it.
Fiat 124 Spider: Fiata Failure
I’m also going to miss the Fiat 124 Spider. Perhaps I won’t be quite as lonely in my lament when it comes to this lovely little roadster. We’re all familiar with this re-motored Mazda MX-5 Miata, and while I can’t genuinely say that Fiat made a better Miata, the brand certainly made a different Miata.
The styling wasn’t as cohesive as the Mazda’s nor was the handling noticeably better. Actually, if anything, the 124 Spider’s handling was very slightly worse. But as I noted in a review for our sister publication, Automobile, the 124 Spider Abarth’s turbo-laggy 1.4-liter engine certainly added a great deal of interest to the Mazda-sourced roadster, its exhaust popping and farting like my dearly-departed uncle Ben after a particularly good meal.
It’s not difficult to see why both models are being discontinued. Monthly sales of the Fiat 500L have been in the double digits (as in less than 100, and often less than 75) for quite some time now. The 124 Spider’s story is only slightly less sad, with Fiat dealers barely moving more than 500 of the little roadsters per month since its introduction for the 2017 model year. To put that in perspective, Honda typically sells 20,000 to 35,000 Civics per month. The opposite of love is not hate but indifference and Americans are indifferent to these two Fiat models.
This leaves Fiat with just one model, the 500X crossover, which is not as dire a situation as it may seem. Four-fifths of Fiat dealers sell Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep products, as well. Of the remaining Fiat dealers, most also sell Alfa Romeos. As for plans to bring more Fiat models to the United States… well, there are none for now. FCA, however, sells a new 500 across the pond and it’s possible the little city car will eventually find its way to our shores. One can only hope. My colleagues may disagree, but I think life is more interesting when there are unusual Fiats to spice it up.