The least popular car in America is practical and affordable. So why isn’t it selling?

Larry Printz
Tribune News Service

Gym class can be the most traumatizing experience for those who don’t like participatory sports. Inevitably, if you’re not a particularly gifted athlete, you will be taunted or, even worse, chosen last for the middle school dodgeball team, a truly nasty game.

If this has happened to you, then you can sympathize with Fiat.

2019 Fiat 500 Urbana Edition

The Italian automaker has struggled in its return to the United States. After an initial burst of popularity with the pint-sized, retro-styled 500, and the introduction of three additional models, company executives seem more convinced of Fiat’s appeal than the rest of us. The company is introducing a new version of its 500X crossover. Dubbed the 500X Sport, it boasts a front and rear facelift and revised interior trim. But is it enough to stop the brand’s sales slide?

Currently, it’s the least popular car brand in the United States, with a 209-day supply of unsold vehicles. A 60-day supply is considered optimal. Of course, that’s an average; some Fiats are more popular than others, just like dodgeball players.

The charming 500 remains the design star of Fiat with a 99-day supply as of Oct. 1, although Fiat is discontinuing the model in North America once the current supply runs out.

At the other extreme is the 500L; dealers have a 523-day supply on hand. That’s a 75-week supply, or enough to satisfy demand for nearly a year-and-a-half even though its five-door configuration is more of a tall wagon than true crossover. Fiat tries mightily to provide the 500L with a whiff of trendiness by endowing the 500L’s trim levels with such names as Pop, Trekking, Urbana and Lounge. But it’s not trendiness that’s its best attribute; it’s utility.

The 500L is a compact five-door hatchback that’s 27 inches longer, 6 inches taller and 6 inches wider than the adorably iconic 500 and built on the same Fiat Chrysler platform as the Jeep Renegade, Ram ProMaster City, Fiat 500X and numerous European Fiats.

At 168 inches long, it not only provides good head and legroom front and rear, it also provides 22.4 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats up, and more than three times that with them folded. And there’s a shelf that provides two tiers of stacking. Large windows and an outsized panoramic sunroof enhance the impression of spaciousness. And, if you wear your hair in a beehive or prefer stovepipe hats, you’ll find headroom to be outstanding. Certainly, Pope Francis does. He’s been chauffeured in Fiat 500Ls, where the tall cabin provides more than enough room for his mitre, and the seats are squishy soft comfortable, if flat.

Obviously, the pontiff finds this more than sufficient for his needs, but he’s also not in much of a hurry.

Power comes courtesy of a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and an Aisin six-speed automatic transmission that generates 160 horsepower through the front wheels. There’s adequate oomph for navigating clogged urban arteries, but it can be lethargic, especially before the turbocharger kicks in. Once it does, the 500L proves responsive, and grip is good when tackling the twisties, but there’s noticeable body lean and the ride is firm and fidgety. None of this is a deal killer, just typical of small wagons.

The overall ambience is commensurate with its price, although two-tone touches throughout the cabin liven the mournful black mood. Chrysler’s Uconnect infotainment system uses a 7-inch touchscreen and is easy to use. The Trekking test model had its share of standard gear including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Beats audio system, navigation system, heated front seats, and power mirrors. Options included a panoramic sunroof, black roof and mirrors, Preferred Package 23G, which added dual automatic climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, front seat lumbar adjustments, and parking assist. Bottom line was $27,605. Be advised, however, there is no spare tire, merely a “Tire Service Kit.”

So far so good. So, what’s the issue? Why is the Fiat 500L dead last in popularity?

It could be because none of the expected advanced driver-assistance safety features are available, ones like blind spot detection, automated emergency braking lane-keeping assist or adaptive cruise control.

But that’s not it. Nope.

The reason the 500L remains unsellable in the U.S. comes down to its looks. It’s bloated, ungainly and unappealing, a vehicle engineered for Europe, where ugly compacts are a fact of life. It’s a face only the pontiff could love. But hey, it’s easy to spot in a parking lot.

But here in the U.S., its looks ensure that the practical, affordable 500L is picked last for dodgeball among automotive consumers.