Fiat’s new 500L is a five-seater MPV designed to take on the Citroen C3 Picasso, Ford B-Max and the equally trendy, retro-pastiche Mini Countryman, offering the chicness of the 500 with miles more utility. Priced from a fiver under £15k, is the 500L a bastardisation of the much-loved city car, or top of the mini-MPV class? We drove the entry-level ‘Pop Star’ trim model with the 1.6-litre diesel engine – read on for CAR’s complete Fiat 500L verdict.
What the L? Is Fiat’s 500L stealing Vauxhall’s monopoly on silly trim titles?
‘Pop Star’ is one of two entry-level models: it’s themed with bright and body colour inserts inside. ‘Easy’ 500Ls start at exactly the same money, but are decked out in more sober hues, and get a couple of extra toys: electric rear windows and parking sensors. Top of the range is the 500L Lounge, starting at £16,395. It’s set apart with a suede dashboard, climate control, automatic lights and rain-sensing wipers. Naturally, you can spec all this kit on the cheaper models should you get carried away, hence our test 500L’s £17,490 base price had swelled to £19,650.
Is the Fiat 500L up to the job of carting around a regular family?
Yes – there’s plenty of touches you can point to to prove Fiat’s really thought out how to make life easy for families. The 343-litre boot’s large, top-hinged door is sprung to shut with just a one-handed push. The doors are lightweight, and though little-uns might find the raised rear bench a touch high to clamber into, there’s stacks of room in the cabin, and 22 cubby holes dotted around to ram kiddie paraphernalia into. The tall glasshouse doesn’t just aid headroom either: visibility through the slim split A-pillars is praiseworthy and it’s light and airy inside, cranking up the 500L’s cheery vibe. Opt for the Lounge model and you get an enormous panoramic glass roof too.
Like the regular Fiat 500, there’s a solidity to the fixtures that you might not expect of a Fiat. Granted the plasticky climate control interface (pinched from Alfa Romeo’s Giulietta) is set too low, and the nasty-feeling indicator and wiper stalks are unpleasant, but those niggles aside, the 500L feels like it’ll take plenty of abuse inside, but doesn’t substitute funky design for grey swathes of hewn Germanic plastic. Toughness is backed up by safety too: the 500L scores five stars from Euro NCAP overall, and gets six airbags as standard.
Are the Fiat 500L’s engines any good?
Surprisingly, given the bulk of the 500L, you can spec the king of downsized engines: the 0.9-litre turbocharged TwinAir two-cylinder. Fiat claims the 105bhp engine will return 58.7mpg, but in our experience TwinAirs get nowhere near their promised economy, and the amusement value of wringing out an eager moped engine in a car wears off a lot faster than the resultant headache. A conventional 1.4-litre petrol four-pot is also available, and two diesels: an 85bhp/147lb ft 1.3-litre and the 1.6 MultiJet we tried. Its 105bhp and 236lb ft easily punt the 500L along at a decent lick, and though it revs smoothly, a middle-distance clatter (though thankfully not vibration) isn’t well-insulated enough in the cabin. Nevertheless, if you’ve got a family in tow and associated gear to cart along, the strongest, responsive 1.6 diesel is the motor to go for.
Is the Fiat 500L any fun to drive?
No-one buys a car in this class for dynamic thrills, even though Ford’s Max brothers (B-Max and C-Max) and the Mini Countryman do offer above-their-station levels of fun. The 500L recalls its city car namesake, in being far less sporting or keen to engage than its Mini rival, but maintaining a certain perkiness. It’s safe, predictable and easy to drive, and for many, that’s plenty. Thumbs up to Fiat for finally pulling a decent driving position out of the bag: the 500L’s driver is treated to a far more comfortable pose than the sit-up-and-beg 500 or Panda. The seat is far more comfortable too, if less pretty (though who cares about how a seat looks anyway?). The 500L’s gearchange too is better than its smaller stablemates: the lever is long, the throw longer, and 50% less notchy than in small Fiats.
Try to drive the 500L like it’s an Abarth hot hatch (don’t hold your breath; Fiat has no plans to offer a sporting 500L to match Mini’s Countryman JCW) and you’ll be met with mild understeer and a reminder of the lofty roof – it’s body roll ahoy, Cap’n. Stiffer springs would’ve spoiled the 500L’s urban town ride anyhow, which is well-sorted even on the larger 17in alloys, and less harsh than a Mini.
Much of your comment surrounding this car will no doubt centre around Fiat’s decision to theme it around the runaway-success 500, rather than using a bespoke style, and name. Fact is, if you don’t like the idea, look away now, because there’s more on the way. CAR’s sources report that Fiat is set to theme its entire range around its two iconic city runabouts: the Panda and 500. Next in the pipeline is a seven-seater 500XL, and a crossover 4×4: the 500X.
Meanwhile the ‘new Punto’ is actually a ‘Panda XXL’ crossover, and above that there’ll be a ‘Giant Panda’ (we wish it’ll be badged as such) set to take the form of a new full-size SUV. Does the plan stretch the tiny tots’ appeal too far? Time (and sales numbers) will tell, but if the transmogrification is as well-executed as the 500L’s don’t bet against this latest brainwave saving beleaguered Fiat’s bacon.
The Fiat 500L does the job asked of it – with a sense of humour. Ford and Mini offer (pricier) driver giggles, and Citroen’s equally arch-funky Picasso is easily the bargain of the group, but overall, we like the 500L plenty. It’s a well-built, keenly-priced and ultimately amiable, practical proposition that takes the sting out of buying a family car just because one is necessary. No-one really needs a workhorse wagon to have over 300 exterior colour combinations after all, but it’s nice to be offered.