BALTIMORE – At first glance, it’s hard to be sure what to make of the Fiat 500L: Too small to be a truck. Too portly for a subcompact.

The 500L slots in the B-segment, where the Nissan Versa rules the roost. According to WardsAuto data, the Versa notched sales of 99,730 last year.

But Fiat marketers here dismiss any B-segment comparisons to the Versa, Chevrolet Sonic, Honda Fit or Ford Fiesta. While those models are value-priced and volume-oriented, the 500L targets a “lifestyle” customer, and the auto maker says it competes more directly with the Kia Soul, Nissan Cube, Scion xB and Mini Countryman.

And not once is the word “subcompact” uttered by any Fiat insider here.

Perhaps in the 500L’s case, there’s no desire to label the vehicle because it’s so hard to define. A boxy design suggests urban-minded styling, but an available “Trekking” package hints of more active uses for the car. The model has the quickness of an Abarth-lite, but is unassuming in its overall package.

Fiat gathers journalists at this major port of entry for a test drive of the 500L through suburban Annapolis and back to a resurgent Baltimore neighborhood where restored-brick lofts sit alongside some of the city’s famous row houses.

The 500L, officially classified by both WardsAuto and the Environmental Protection Agency as a small car, measures 167.3 ins. (424.9 cm) in overall length, only 27 ins. (68.6 cm) longer than the standard 500. However, there’s a surprising amount of cabin room that can accommodate drivers and passengers more than 6 feet (182.9 cm) tall.

There’s ample breathing room behind the wheel, though adjusting the steering wheel for both comfort and a clear view of the thin-film-transistor display is a challenge. Even with the seat all the way back, rear passengers have adequate legroom, and headroom is generous both front and rear, thanks to the car’s flat roof.

Fiat designers implemented a “loft-like,” near-360-degree view from inside the 500L, thanks to its ultra-thin roof pillars. Unlike the 500, where it can be a challenge to see out the back window, especially in cabrio models, drivers have a clear view of their surroundings in the 500L.

Designers note the heritage of the 500 and how that styling is incorporated into the 500L, a new model for both Europe and North America. Those elements include the 500’s round headlights and front fascia “whiskers,” plus its slanted back end. But the Fiat logo and 500L nameplate on the rear is huge, and maybe a bit gaudy, overpowering the car’s otherwise smooth lines.

Our driving route takes us mostly along wide, suburban boulevards where the 500L is an oddball among workaday midsize family haulers, but we’re able to put this plucky sedan to the test through less-traveled, twisty back roads as well.

The 500L is powered by Fiat’s turbocharged 1.4L MultiAir engine, borrowed from the 500 Abarth and Dodge Dart. There are two transmission options: a 6-speed manual and a dry dual-clutch automatic. We spend our time in the DDCT.

Hints of the Abarth come through in the 500L’s exhaust note, which is tuned loud enough to excite but not enough to disturb. It hums more than sings through the gears, but it’s nice. With the DDCT, the driver can switch into autostick mode, which can move through the gears quickly with a little extra kick.

The 500L comes off the line briskly, thanks largely to the DDCT. It’s been tuned for smoother shift patterns, answering complaints from some of those who bought the first Darts with the transmission. Ratcheting up to higher speeds is a breeze, and in auto mode, unrequested downshifting is never an issue.

The tight, sporty suspension moves the 500L accurately through the curves with little body roll. Steering is especially precise, and it’s easy to forget you’re not in an Abarth when tossing this car around. It’s here where the 500L stands out. Fiat makes the Soul, Cube and xB available here for comparison testing, and none provides the same level of excitement.

If there’s a quibble to be had about performance, it’s road noise. The exhaust helps drown that out some, but not at lower speeds.

A bigger issue is the 500L’s starting price of $19,100, which is less than a comparable Countryman but may be out of range for Fiat’s targeted customers: young families and on-the-move urbanites. The model tested here rings in at $27,445.

While the 500L is indeed a fun alternative to the drab midsize or style-deficient minivan, its interior doesn’t match many other similarly priced cars. Unlike the 500, which offers several trim levels, color combinations and personalization opportunities, the 500L only comes in dull shades of gray.

Save for the Lounge edition, which has funky words scribbled in cursive across the seats, the vast majority of interior choices puts the 500L back in the budget-subcompact league. It doesn’t help that the dash and center console are clad with the same plastic seen in the less-expensive 500, and there’s just as much of it in both vehicles.

Interior flaws aside, it’s still difficult to pin down where the 500L fits, but maybe that is the point after all.

By defying characterization and having fun with an often mundane segment, Fiat hopes to attract the attention of a new wave of consumers as it looks to reestablish a beachhead here.

afoley@wardsauto.com

'14 Fiat 500L
Vehicle type B-segment 5-passenger, 5-door multi-purpose vehicle
Engine 1.4L SOHC 16-valve turbocharged MultiAir 4-cyl.; cast-iron block, aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 160 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Torque 184 lb.-ft. (250 Nm) @ 2,500-4,000 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 72 x 84
Compression ratio 9.8:1
Transmission C635 Euro Twin Clutch Six-Speed
Wheelbase 102.8 ins. (261.2 cm)
Overall length 167.3 ins. (424.9 cm)
Overall width 69.8 ins. (177.4 cm)
Overall height 65.7 ins. (167.0 cm)
Curb weight 3,254 lbs. (1,476 kg)
Base price $19,100
Fuel economy 24/33 mpg (9.8-7.1 L/100km)
Competition Kia Soul, Scion xB, Mini Countryman, Nissan Cube
Pros Cons
Room to roam Might squeeze the wallet
Funky on outside Dull on inside
Can be road runner Price a hurdle