Fiat's 500L falls flat while Kia's Soul soars - alternate title, "We're not a group that likes the smell of a Yugo."
LAT March 22, 2014 - Kia's redesigned Soul and Fiat's all-new 500L are the latest models in the quirky "toaster" class of sub-compact cars.
Picture a 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.
Kia's Soul 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.
For the 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.
Fiat's 500L 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.
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.
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.
The 500L's 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 European.
The windshield 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.
But for a brand looking to leverage its Italian roots while expanding into new segments, the 500L misses the mark by miles. Maybe its the car's providence: The 500L is assembled at the same Serbian site where the Yugo was built. The factory might as well be built on a grave site.
Kia SoulEvery thing 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.
The happiness 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.
Though the 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.
What started 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.
Fiat, 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.
Fiat's 500L falls flat while Kia's Soul soars - latimes.com