I fear no man, and I sure as hell ain’t gon’ fear no Fiat-freaking-500.
In the first installment of my broken Fiat 500L saga, I drove through the remnants of a snowstorm to buy the ugliest Fiat sold in America. Neither cute like the regular 500 nor offering AWD like the 500X, the 500L has styling reminiscent of a background vehicle from The Sims 3, and a driving experience that was the equivalent of wet burnt toast smeared with Neufchatel cheese.
Okay, that’s harsh. The 500L is a perfectly serviceable small wagon, or MPV, or whatever. It’s just ugly as shit.
I’m a car flipper, I do this to make a bit of change on the side, and have fun doing it. In mid Febuary, I spent $1,900 on this 2015 Fiat 500L with 123,000 miles that wouldn’t start. The ignition was completely disassembled, and a code reader showed that nearly every computerized system was reporting multiple trouble codes. After towing the vehicle home, my roommate and I ran power directly to the starter motor using jumper cables and got the car to start.
The Christmas list of codes, most of them of the “no signal” or “missing message” variety, told me that something, somewhere, was not getting power or wasn’t grounded. I had a Saturn Vue I flipped a long time ago that did something similar. In that Vue, the battery refused to charge. The vehicle had enough volts to start and drive, but not every system had adequate voltage, so I had a CEL for several systems, the radio wouldn’t turn on, and I was limited to third gear and reverse only. A replacement battery cleared all those codes up, and gave me back the full use of the transmission.
I figured the Fiat 500L would be something similar, but where? My roommate had the idea to just run an aftermarket ground wire directly from the starter to the battery, but I poo-poo’d that janky-looking, not-factory idea. The 500L was too new and in too nice of shape for a shitty aftermarket hacky fix to be acceptable!
Then, while tracing back the ground lines, we saw it… gross, ashy and salt-covered. In the Fiat 500L, there are a few ground wires, but the main one is in two pieces – from the battery to the body, right on the driver’s side frame rail. From there, there’s a ground strap that goes to the transmission, which grounds and completes the circuit for the starter motor (and the entire car, really). When we went to touch the ground strap to the starter, the wire terminal fell off, revealing a sliced and crumbling ground wire, blue with corrosion.
“Ope, well there’s your problem,” said my roommate. I feel like the broken ground wire may have caused the whole “key-stuck-in-ignition” fiasco. I’d wager that the computer randomly lost power at one point, and the vehicle refused to release the key from the ignition, as it’s designed to. True, the ignition cylinder likely still had issues with binding, but that feels like a separate issue made worse by the previous owner’s attempt at a repair.
Luckily, my computer engineer roommate had some spare terminals and heavy gauge wire. Within about five minutes, he crafted a replacement ground wire. We replaced the wire, and voila – the car started on its own, without the help of jumper cables.
Onto the next problem: the binding and broken ignition.
The 500L’s ignition has a few pieces. On the front of the ignition, where you insert the key, is the transponder antenna which reads the key to tell the car’s computer that the key is correct. Next is the lock cylinder, which sits inside a plastic piece that holds the ignition to the vehicle. Underneath that is a metal canister-looking thing; that’s the electronic key release. There’s a manual release lever that will let you remove the key if the vehicle won’t automatically release it when you turn the ignition off. The lock cylinder turns a plus-shaped rod that fits in yet another key-matched transponder that informs the ignition on, start, and accessory modes. The whole assembly is held to the steering column via security bolts – bolts that are intentionally broken off to hasten their removal.
So there, I had a dilemma. The ignition is sold in one piece, and the key-specific electronics are unable to be reprogrammed, ruling out used parts, or at least used electronic parts. I was pretty confident that I only needed the plastic piece, so I chance’d it on a used ignition. I didn’t want to spend hella dinero at the Fiat dealership programming a new key, so I needed to port over as many electronics from the old ignition as I could.
Removing the ignition cylinder was pretty easy. Even the security bolts came out pretty easily, using some “easy out” bolt removal sockets. The electronic pieces from the old unit swapped over easily to the new (used) part. Installation took maybe 30 minutes, and I didn’t even have to remove the steering wheel. Now, the key inserts and removes just fine. I love it when things are easy – I haven’t had a flip this easy in a long time.
It was finally time to drive the Fiat. I overinflated the bald and leaky tires and set off on a drive around the block. Aside from the pull in the steering wheel because of the completely mismatched tires, the 500L was doing great, until… I lost all power.
The 500L isn’t that quick, the turbo-four is mated to a completely wrongly matched six-speed Aisin automatic. I knew it wouldn’t be quick, but the 500L all of a sudden had a downright dangerously bad performance. Getting to 60 mph took more than 30 seconds. Finally, after about five minutes of driving, the CEL had returned. I cut my drive short and went home to scan it and see what the code was.
The car was returning code P2262: “Turbo Boost Pressure Not Detected (mechanical)”. Driving around with a live data display showed the car’s computer was requesting a certain amount of boost, but it was not receiving it. In fact, it showed that the 500L wasn’t generating any boost at all!
Lord, my mind had instantly jumped to the worst, I had been sold a car with a bunk turbo. Yet, I wasn’t convinced, and I ran to the internet to research what P2262 might really mean.
Because the 500L was a much-unloved product in the U.S., there’s not a lot of troubleshooting info out there on this car. P2262 led me down a lot of dead ends, most of them owners throwing parts at the vehicle but very little diagnosis. After a lot of searching, I stumbled on a Dodge Dart forum where an owner explained that P2262 is caused by a big boost leak. I thought to myself – what would cause a big enough boost leak to render the vehicle unable to generate boost period? The wastegate.
I tried using an Autel scanner to manually open the wastegate, as its computer-controlled. Yet, the scanner kept returning the message “test aborted/failed” when I tried to open the wastegate whilst running. Hm. After some more research via youtube and internet forums, I popped the hood to look at the turbo and wastegate assembly. Then I saw this:
You see that? The wastegate isn’t even attached! The wastegate’s attachment rod is held on with a dowel and clip, and the clip must’ve popped off a few feet after my initial drive. A cheap E-clamp secured the wastegate and fixed the problem.
For the next month or so, I piled on more than 2,000 miles on the 500L, driving it all around Ohio, ensuring it wouldn’t break down on its next owner. I didn’t feel comfortable driving the Abarth or the Sonic on long drives; the Sonic’s front tires were nearly bald, and I hadn’t quite sorted out all the problems on the Abarth yet. Manual transmissions are my thing, but the ease and allure that the 500L’s stick-it-in-D-and-go ease found me picking it even for more mundane around town errands.
I kind of warmed up to the 500L, much to the ire of some of the other automotive writers on Twitter. I’ve read plenty of reviews of the 500L, it’s ugly, maybe a bit too slow, kind of expensive for what you get, those are all certainly true things. However, the internet can blow valid grievances and quibbles horribly out of proportion, making a not class-leading vehicle sound as if it’s a modern Yugo GV. Ok, maybe not a Yugo GV, I think the 500L is made in the old Yugo plant.
I found the Fiat 500L a perfectly agreeable appliance. The car easily kept up with traffic just fine. The transmission shifted smoothly, the freeway manners were remarkably refined. I took the 500L on multiple hour-long freeway jaunts, where the car quite happily sat at 75MPH with the air conditioning on, returning just shy of 30MPG. The large rear cargo hold accommodated a whole set of wheels for the 500 Abarth without having to fold the seats, and I liked how good the visibility was inside. It felt as ubiquitous and unintrusive as any modern subcompact or compact crossover. If this car was less ugly, and had not had a Fiat badge, it probably would have sold better.
After about a thousand miles or so, (and after selling the Tiburon), I figured the car was as fine as ever, ready for its next owner. My other flip car friends were having incredible success with their projects; their cars sold in mere hours after listing online, usually at asking price. I felt good about the 500L, I knew I was going to roll in the MONEY, y’all. I took some glamour shots, made a listing on Facebook Marketplace for $6,850, and waited for the phone to ring off the hook, baby.
Except, it didn’t ring. The 500L’s KBB value touched more than $8,000 for a “Very Good” example so I thought my $6,850 asking price was a damn good deal.
After two weeks, I dropped the price down to $6,500. A week after that, $6,250. Still no dice. Frustrated, I deleted the ads I posted on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist for three days, then re-listed again at $5,800. Less money than I wanted, but I was tired of looking at the car and I was ready to move onto the next project.
The sub-$6,000 price got me a few more views, and a few messages, but mostly flakes. Two different people set up times to view the car, one of which decided to buy a different car while they kept me waiting for them to show up at the meeting point. I thought, “God, am I going to have to dump this thing at Carmax or something? Why does no one want this damn car?” I vented to a friend about my woes, asking if he knew some tips, had an ideas on how to get this big green breadvan out of my driveway.
“You should try CarGurus,” he said. He elabroated that the Fiat’s higher price is wading into buyers who might be in financing territory, and CarGurus sometimes offers financing options for buyers without the liquid cash.
What did I have to lose? I copy and pasted the information from my Craigslist and Facebook marketplace ads into a CarGurus advert. Within a day the 500L had found a buyer; a woman looking for a small yet spacious car to cart around her grandkids, but also something she could see out of. Remarkably painless, I should have been using CarGurus years ago.
Alrighty, here’s the budget you’ve been waiting for.
- Purchase Price: $1,900
- Tax/Title/Registration: $243
- Tow: $140
- Replacement Rear chrome taillight trim (passenger side): $73
- Replacement Ignition: $70
- Replacement Tires: ~$267
- Replacement Ground Strap: free
- Tire Mount/Balance: $99
Total Invested: $2,792
I was able to sell the 500L for $5,200; sure less than the $6,000 I had originally in my mind, but I got more than 2,000 miles of utility out of the car, and I wasn’t invested very deeply into it.
A 2015 Honda or Toyota would have sold for literally three times as much. I feel for anyone who bought a 500L new, and is looking to sell, because boy… those resale values are pretty dismal.
Onto the next, I guess.