Fiat's cutesy 500 loosens its belt in the shape of the larger 500L. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The 500L is Fiat's bold answer to customer and dealer demands for a grown up alternative to the small but so successful, 500. A five-seater compact MPV that doesn't feel like one, taking care of people and baggage-carrying chores with a practical dash of Italian flair. And, perhaps best of all, allowing for individual personalisation through an option list clever and extensive enough to set new benchmarks for the class.
Fiat has its own fortune 500, a little family of cars on which present and future hopes of the brand are these days almost exclusively based. The 500 we all think of is the cheeky little three-door citycar that started this model's retro revolution but Fiat always felt that this should be merely the starting rung on an ownership ladder designed to be fine for families as well as fashion-conscious urbanistas. A ladder encompassing seven seats and SUVs as well as the model we're going to look at here, the spacious 500L.
Fiat's fame of course has traditionally been founded on much smaller cars than this - but the brand needs to get better at being bigger if legions of owners of the 500 citycar are not to be lost to other makers as their needs and families grow. And sure enough, on paper, the signs are good. This model claims to be the most space-efficient design in the compact MPV segment, bespokable with the widest and cleverest range of unique accessories.
A compact people carrier, in other words, that you can be passionately practical about. In a Fiat designed to bring a welcome dash of fashion to family motoring. 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. Here, you might wish that the steering offered you a little more feedback, a pity because in other respects, this is one of the more dynamically able five-seat mini-MPVs on the market, with well controlled bodyroll and a range of willing, torquey engines. Well, most of them are willing and torquey anyway. You couldn't really say that of the entry-level petrol unit, a 95bhp petrol 1.4 that's one of Fiat's older efforts and which, thanks to limited pulling power, doesn't really feel as fast as the performance stats suggest (rest to 62mph in 12.8s on the way to 111mph).
Better then, if possible, to find the funds to stretch to one of the other engine options. Two of these offer you 105bhp - the minority choice 1.6-litre Multijet diesel and the frugal but rather noisy 0.9-litre two cylinder TwinAir petrol unit that's proved so popular in the 500 citycar. In both cases, 62mph is 11 to 12 seconds away en route to 112mph. My council though, would in preference be to choose the engine we tried, the 85bhp 1.3-litre Multijet diesel.
Yes I know, eighty five braked horses don't sound very many to push along a 1.3-tonne people carrier, a supposition apparently confirmed on paper by a 14.9s 0-62mph time on the way to just 102mph. But with 200Nm of torque, 35% more than the TwinAir petrol unit can muster, this little unit feels perkier than those figures suggest.There are also two 120bhp powerplants, a 1.6-litre Multijet II turbo-diesel and a 1.4 T-Jet petrol.
Design and Build
You tend to approach this 500L expecting it to be a pumped-up version of the 500 citycar - which of course it isn't. To make this model as big as it needed to be - fully 60cm longer and 18cm taller than an ordinary 500, so in Fiat terms, longer than a Punto supermini and as wide as a Bravo family hatch - Andreas Wuppinger's styling team had to use a Punto floorplan as the basis for something quite different. Then give the end result a recognisable '500'-style twist, hence the familiar wide-eyed front end.
As BMW found when trying to super-size the MINI to create the MINI Countryman, that isn't a recipe for aesthetic elegance - and it certainly isn't here - but it has left room for some very clever touches. Just look at the flow of the wraparound windscreen for instance, designed to give almost 360-degree vision.
The design team set out to shoehorn as much space as possible into as small a roadgoing footprint as they could get away with - and the result's impressive. There's almost nothing else on the market this compact that comfortably accommodates three adults across the back seat in the way that this Fiat can.
But of course in a car of such compact dimensions, you'll never be able to satisfy everyone all of the time. Give rear seat folk all the room they need and out back, you'll find yourself with a 343-litre boot not quite as big as that of some sector rivals, Citroen's C3 Picasso for instance. If however, you're able to push the rear bench right forward on its runners, then the 400-litre space this'll free up is segment-leading - and 50-litres bigger than that of, say, a Volkswagen Golf.
Market and Model
It isn't only the concept, the size and the styling of this model that's different from the 500 citycar. The price is very different too. Expect to pay somewhere in the £15,000 to £19,000 bracket for your 500L, though with such a long options list, plenty will exit showrooms costing comfortably over £20,000. Before perusing that though, make sure that there's enough in your budget to cover the £1,500 premium necessary to progress from the thirsty, dirty entry-level petrol 1.4 to either the petrol TwinAir or the 1.3-litre Multijet diesel. There's a further £1,000 to find on top of that if you want the extra pulling power of the 1.6-litre Multijet diesel.
Has any five-seater compact family five-door ever offered more scope for buyer personalisation than this one? I doubt it. There are decal packs to suit every taste and a wider range of paint colours than any compact car has ever offered. Whichever shade you choose, you can contrast it with a different finish for the wheels, the door mirrors - oh and the roof too, though there wouldn't be much point in doing that if you ticked the box for a panoramic glass top: it's so large it takes up nearly all the available surface area. It's optionally electrically openable too. Inside, there's a body coloured-painted dashboard offered in five different shades or with beautiful suede trim. You can also specify a two-tone steering wheel and there's a choice of red or grey seat inserts.
But of course that's just the start. Fiat promises buyers a choice of over 100 unique accessories in a list that goes far beyond the usual bodykit, stereo and towbar choices. So your 500L might come with a bespoke PC bag, a steel clothes hook, an iPod holder or even a key in your own personal colour. It could even have a coffee maker. Yes really.
Cost of Ownership
We can't imagine that 500L motoring is ever going to cost you very much. The 1.3-litre Multijet diesel we tried manages 67.3mpg on the combined cycle and puts out 110g/km of CO2, figures you can further improve to 70.6mpg and 105g/km by opting to pair this engine with the MTA automatic gearbox. In theory, not far behind is the 105bhp 0.9-litre two cylinder petrol TwinAir variant which is supposed to be able to manage 58.9mpg and 112g/km, but only if you engage a sprint-sapping 'ECO' mode that cuts pulling power by nearly 20%.
Even then, you'll get nowhere near the returns promised by the other 105bhp engine in the 500L range, the 1.6-litre Multijet diesel, which manages 62.8mpg and 117g/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 - 45.6mpg on the combined cycle and 145g/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. Insurance sits between groups 8 and 11 on the 1-50 scale for most variants, but jumps into the 17-18 band if you opt for the top 1.6-litre diesel.
So, a compact MPV based on the underpinnings of a small family runabout. Nothing new there. Unless you apply fashionable thinking to the purchase of such a thing - in which case, this Fiat 500L is refreshingly different indeed.
It's certainly different from the 500 citycar we all know - but then of course, to suit the intended family role, it had to be. Not everyone will like the styling approach necessary to achieve this but it's surely one that sets it apart from rivals. A unique look, just as every 500 should have.
Fun, cheeky and cool, this Fiat claims to suit the sort of people looking for a car to be an extension of their personality: a car that reflects their passion for life. I'm not sure if any compact people carrier can really do all that but of all those available, there's little doubt that this 500L is the one that gets closest to hitting the mark. To being a sensible family car you can really feel good about.