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    ‘Small Cars’ Made for Size Queens

    autoSize queens rejoice: small cars are getting bigger. Witness the Mini Countryman, with its four doors and chunky, SUV-ish posture. Countrymen seem to be parked on every third block in the Castro, so the immense popularity of the Mini Cooper seems to have translated to its newer bigger brother.

    And why not? There’s nothing wrong with blending in some style with a boxy and practical car.

    Hot on the Countryman’s heels are the new-for-2014 Fiat 500L and the Kia Soul, which debuted in 2010 and got a refresh for 2014. Both are available in bold colors and jazzy interiors, and both got a lot of attention as they ran the city rounds. The Kia’s advertising preceded it; more than one of my friends said, “Oh, this is the one with the mice in the ads.” They’re actually hamsters, but close enough.

    The 500L is based on the teensy Fiat 500 hatchback, which is just under 140 inches in length. The 500L expands that platform by a bit more than two feet in length and six inches in width.

    car2For all its greater girth, the 500L remains highly maneuverable, with a tight turning diameter of 32.3 inches. The Soul is about five inches shorter than the 500L, which can be a considerable advantage if you’re parking in tight spaces. And the Soul’s turning circle is a decent 34.8 inches.

    They’re pretty close in size, but the differences between the Fiat and the Kia are dramatic once you climb in. Both offer optional panoramic power sunroofs, and those big roof holes are great at letting in the sunshine. But the Fiat felt much more open, with an extra set of windows being the rear doors, where the Kia has thick and solid pillars. The Fiat’s rear visibility is therefore much better.

    The Kia, on the other hand, is more fun to drive. The Fiat shares its 1.4-liter turbo engine with the Dodge Dart, and it’s nice to report that this engine is not the disaster it was in a Dart I tested last year, with its annoyingly weak throttle response. The 500L redeems that memory with ample pickup. It’s still possible to catch that little 1.4-liter feeling sleepy with the turbo down, but it quickly hops into action. The Soul, on the other hand, feels more refined and grown-up, with an admirably strong and torquey response. In addition, active steering feel and flat cornering make the Soul fun to bomb around in.

    car1Mileage ratings are similar, with an EPA overall rating of 26 for the Soul and 27 for the Fiat. Note that the Fiat’s turbo needs premium gas.

    Expensive options abound for both cars. The tested 500L “Trekker” starts at just over $22K and came to just under $27K. The Soul started about a thousand below and just about matched the 500L out the door.

    Overall, the 500L and Soul demonstrate what size queens have known all along; bigger really can be better.

    Philip Ruth is a Castro-based automotive photojournalist and consultant at www.gaycarguy.com. Check out his automotive staging service at www.carstaging.com