I Really Traversed a Snowstorm to Buy an Ugly Broken Fiat 500L
I got this 2015 500L for cheap because of electrical gremlins keeping it from starting.
I’ve seen a lot of y’all make comments like “I saw this car for $5,000, it would have been an easy fix-and-flip!” That’s pretty wild to me… I’m not one to spend more than $1,500 on a flip car. So, whilst browsing Facebook Marketplace, I almost missed out on a late model Fiat that had a lot of potential.
A little out of my budget, I saw a Fiat 500L listed for sale on Facebook marketplace for $1,900. The listing said the vehicle wouldn’t start, and was sitting in the back lot of a shop on the south side of town. The price was higher than what I was used to paying, sheesh, my brain kept getting stuck on that price, but it was so new – 2015. I figured that if I couldn’t work on it, I could likely dump it for what I paid with minimal losses.
Before I got my Abarth I had wanted a Fiat for a while, just not this ugly blobby Chrysler PT cruiser follow-up. The two-door models pop up on Craigslist somewhat often for cheap, needing work. The last two cheap Fiats I passed on to a fellow flipper, as I was both cash strapped and knee-deep in another car. Yeah, but this time I didn’t have that excuse, I had the cash.
I knew a little about the Fiat 500 city car, but I didn’t know much about the 500L at all. I’ve driven a 500L awhile back – I didn’t think it was as bad as most of the automotive media made it out to be, but it wasn’t great either. It’s ugly, and the retro styling motif doesn’t work on its bread van shape, and the ergonomics are kind of weird. Come to think of it, it reminds me a lot of the Chrysler PT cruiser, but I think the PT Cruiser could be considered a charming design… The 500L is pretty fugly from any angle.
Still, I needed to know more about it. It had a 1.4 turbocharged engine, the same one found in the Dodge Dart and Fiat 500 Abarth. This particular car was an automatic, which is a much easier sell than a manual. “Oh god, wait, don’t these things have DCT units that are both crappily built and shitty to drive,” I thought. More research showed me that in 2015 the 500L got a mild update – all but the base “Pop” trim swapped out a problematic DCT automatic, for a traditional torque-converter automatic. “Hm, it’s probably an Easy, not a Pop,” I said to nobody. “Definitely not a Lounge or Trekking.” Jeez, Fiats have goofy-ass trim names.
Fortunately, the weather was on my side in that it was keeping other buyers at bay. At the time, central Ohio was in the midst of a terrible snowstorm. The seller admitted that many people had in fact hit them up about the car, but Facebook marketplace can be a lot of talk, but no action. Still, I kept chatting. The snow was coming down, and most people were avoiding the roads. The weather report said the next day was supposed to be just as bad. I didn’t want to lose out on the car, so I said “Hey, unless it’s armageddon, I’m willing to trek down and take a gander at the car even in the snow. I’m from Akron, so this really isn’t so bad for me. I got cash in hand.”
It worked. The very next message was the location of the car, and a “I’ll see you in the morning” reply. Luckily, the next day, the weather was pristine. The snow had stopped in the wee early hours in the morning, so the journey across town was uneventful. I brought my roommate, he’s way more adept at electrical issues.
In my brief Facebook chat with the owner, they’d said that the car didn’t start after they shut it off to run quickly in a store. They said the key wouldn’t even turn. They put a new starter on the vehicle, which didn’t fix it. The owner guaranteed “it was something electrical,” as the car was running fine before it did this.
When I arrived to the car, I was greeted with a green tall hatchback, in remarkably good shape. Sure, the tires were all different brands, and the ones up front were nearly bald, but the body was free of any big blemishes. I think a taillight was missing a chrome trim piece, but that can’t be too expensive, right? Inside, I saw that the steering column plastic shroud was missing, and the ignition was hanging out. My mind was brewing with ideas. I also figured the non-start issue was electrical. My research the day before showed me that binding ignition cylinders is somewhat common for Fiat 500s, so maybe the ignition wasn’t seeing the key correctly?
My roommate connected his fancy Autel scanner. It showed “incorrect SKIM key” and a plethora of body codes stored for nearly every vehicle system.
“I don’t think those codes are real,” I said. I mean, they’re triggered, so they’re real. But I didn’t think all of the affected systems were broken, just that the car simply wasn’t getting enough energy so everything was going a little haywire.
Eventually, the owner’s husband showed up – the owner of a car lot nearby. I get the gist that the 500L was just a random car he was using as his private car, rather than on the dealer’s lot.
“Yeah, my wife was driving the damn thing, and the key wouldn’t turn in the ignition! I popped off the plastic, and tried to start the car with a screwdriver, and that didn’t work – it doesn’t crank, just clicks. I replaced the starter, thinking that was it, and it just clicks. I’m over this damn car,” he said.
Sure enough, turning the backside of the ignition with a screwdriver didn’t net anything but a click, as if the car had a low battery. Restoring this car felt sounded like a challenge, and I was up for it. So gave the man $1,900 and had the Fiat towed away.
I was almost 100 percent positive it had an electrical issue. Modern cars sometimes do weird things when they don’t have enough voltage. I had a Saturn Vue with a bunk battery that wouldn’t charge – it had enough juice to start the car, but not enough to power all the vehicle systems. And thus, I could drive, but the radio didn’t work, and the automatic transmission only had third and reverse. A replacement battery cleared all that up.
I had a hunch on the specific issue here, too: When the previous owner popped the ignition off and tried to start the car with a screwdriver, it seemed to confused the car’s computer, and causing it to unlearned the vehicle’s key. I figured that’s where the “Invalid SKIM Key” check engine light code came from. A quick search for “Invalid SKIM Key” Chrysler, shows a few different Dodges having similar problems of stuck ignitions or forgotten keys.
My roommate however, had another theory – he found a TSB where some select Fiat 500s had improper grounding from the starter via the transmission, not allowing the vehicle to turn over.
After the vehicle was towed away to my garage, I checked the battery. The battery was fine. Hm. Maybe the starter wasn’t drawing the correct amount of volts? Using the screwdriver, I attempted to crank the vehicle, whilst watching a voltmeter. If it was working correctly, the voltmeter should drop significantly when the starter is cranked. I cranked the car once more – the voltmeter barely moved.
I decided to put power directly to the starter, running jumper cables directly from the battery to the starter.
She fired right up! Check engine light was on, but the car sounded great. At least I knew right there that the car didn’t have a seized engine.
From what I could see at this point, it seemed like the vehicle was not correctly grounded, not allowing the vehicle to start. From here I’d have to figure out how to correctly ground the electrical system – could just be a dirty or missing ground strap. The ignition is also still broken, but that shouldn’t be super hard to repair.
So assuming I don’t run into anything terribly unexpected, let’s work out the projected costs. I’m going this one alone, since there’s no need to remove an engine or such, so I shouldn’t have to consult my trusted mechanic to do stuff for me.
- Purchase Price: $1,900
- Tax/Title/Registration: $243
- Tow: $140
- Replacement rear chrome tailight trim (passenger side) :$70
- Replacement ignition: $90
- Replacement tires: ~$300
- Total investment: $2,743
The KBB values for a 2015 Fiat 500 Easy with 123,000 miles are in the range of $5,500 all the way to $8,300. Those prices seem optimistic, so let’s aim for a goal of selling the car for $6,000. That’d be a pretty healthy profit of around $3,300. Will I get that? Who knows, you’re going to have to check in again soon to find out. Wish me luck!