The Fiat 500L MPV dons a pair of hiking boots in its more aggressively-styled 'Cross' guise. Jonathan Crouch drives it.
Ten Second Review
Customers like the practicality of small MPV People Carriers but sales in this category are falling because small SUVs are more charismatic. So what if you could produce a little MPV with the charisma of a little SUV? That's the thinking behind Fiat's much improved 500L, especially in the case of the SUV-like 'Cross' variant.
Is there still a place for the Fiat 500L in this changing market? The Italian brand thinks there is. To prove the point, the company thoroughly updated this car in mid-2017, changing 40% of all its components and in the process, creating the much improved model we're going to look at here. The previously rather awkward looks now have more in common with the 500 citycar, media connectivity's taken a step forward and the cabin is of much higher quality. Just as importantly, this model now has three distinct identities: the standard 'Urban' version; the lengthened 7-seat 'Wagon' model; and this more rugged-looking 'Cross' variant with its higher ride height and enhanced traction system.
Lots of options then, for a compact People Carrier that aims to bring a welcome dash of fashion to family motoring, a car that Fiat says you can be passionately practical about. Let's check it out.
You get an urban confidence with the 500L, something encouraged by the light lock-to-lock steering. A car you might enjoy on the school run. If not quite so much pushing on beyond the city limits. Under the bonnet, the range is based around either 95bhp or 120bhp petrol or diesel engine options. The green pump-fuelled powerplants are both 1.4-litres in size, with the 120bhp turbocharged T-Jet unit infinitely superior to its feebler normally aspirated alternative. Most buyers though, will want one of the Multijet diesels. Either the 95bhp 1.3-litre unit (which comes with a Dualogic auto transmission option). Or the 120bhp 1.6-litre powerplant we tried SUV-style 'Cross' guise.
'Cross' buyers get a raised ride height and a 'Mode Selector' giving extra 'Traction+' and 'Gravity Control' driving settings for light off road use. 'Traction+' prompts the ABS system to brake the slipping wheel, at the same time transferring torque to the one with more traction and hopefully easing you out of whatever mildly challenging situation you're slithering about in. Overall, you wouldn't want to put all this to too much of a test, but the truth is that there's probably more off-tarmac capability here than you get with most fashionable small SUVs.
Design and Build
The changes made to this revised 500L have mainly been about creating more of a visual family connection between this car and the 500 city runabout that Fiat hopes many potential buyers will be graduating to it from. Most of the family resemblance is tied up in what the brand calls a 'moustache and badge' combo, which they hope you'll see at the front in the way that the chromed strip and the upper grille just beneath it sit between the two main headlights. The effect of this is a bit more prominent now that the designers have given the lower frontal area a bit more emphasis courtesy of a revised front bumper. Ordinary variants get it incorporated with a chrome-studded three-dimensional lower grille, but for this SUV-styled 'Cross' version, there's a more aggressive silvered skid plate-style arrangement and special vented treatment for the upper grille. As with the 500L itself, it's something you'll either like a lot - or not at all.
Inside, quite a few changes have been made to try and lift the rather limited showroom appeal that afflicted the cabin of the initial version of this car. There's a redesigned steering wheel, better quality cabin plastics and a next-generation 'Uconnect' infotainment system. In the rear, the useful sliding bench remains and there's a decently-sized 400-litre boot. 'Cross' buyers only get the 5-seat bodystyle.
Market and Model
The SUV-style 'Cross' variant we're trying here comes in one single fully-loaded level of spec at prices starting from just over £18,000. This is a confection that Fiat hopes will appeal to buyers in the Juke and Captur-style small Crossover segment who are not already convinced by the proper small SUV, the 500X. A properly dressed-up Fiat 500X is probably going to cost you the best part of £20,000. A 500L Cross, in contrast, offers much the same kind of style at prices starting from just over £18,000; that could be significant.
Key 'Cross'-spec inclusions are the 'Traction+' system, with its extra grip options for rough road use, extra ride height and a 'Trekking' bodykit, which gives you the skidplate-style bumpers front and rear, plus special side mouldings. Larger 17-inch 'Trekking' alloy wheels are shod with special 'Mud&Snow' tyres. And there's height adjustment for the front passenger seat and lumbar adjustment for both front chairs. At this level in the range, you also get rear parking sensors, Fiat's 'Cargo Magic Space' adjustable-height boot floor, front foglamps, powered rear windows, dual-zone climate control, extra chrome exterior trim, rain-sensing wipers and headlamps that turn on when the car detects fading light conditions.
Cost of Ownership
We can't imagine that 500L motoring is ever going to cost you very much. The 1.3-litre Multijet diesel manages 68.9mpg on the combined cycle and puts out 107g/km of CO2, figures you can further improve to 70.6mpg and 105g/km by opting to pair this engine with the Dualogic automatic gearbox.
The other diesel engine in the 500L range, the 1.6-litre Multijet diesel, manages 67.3mpg and 112g/km of CO2. By far the worst of the bunch is the least powerful unit on offer, the 95bhp 1.4-litre 16v petrol unit, delivering figures that remind us how inefficient small car engines used to be - 46.3mpg on the combined cycle and 143g/km of CO2.
What else? Well, there's a Smart Fuel System that does away with a fuel cap and makes it impossible to put petrol into a diesel model - or vica versa. And servicing? Well that will be needed on petrol units every 18,000 miles, but you can stretch that to 21,000 miles if you opt for one of the diesels.
'Even more 500, even more convenient, even more technology'. That, according to Fiat, is what's on offer with this much improved 500L. It won't stem the stampede away from small People Carriers into SUVs, but it may well carve out a very useful niche for itself, especially in this 'Cross' guise.
In summary, what we've got here - a little confusingly - is a little MPV that doesn't feel especially little, nor in some ways does it feel especially like an MPV. Fiat thinks that's a good thing, here delivering us a compact, versatile and very individual contender able to take care of people and baggage-carrying chores with a practical dash of Italian flair. For them, it's the 500 - all grown up. And a sensible family car you could really feel good about.