A rugged Fiat 500? Has the world gone mad? Fiat doesn't think so and believes the 500L Trekking more than justifies its existence. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The chunky Fiat 500L is a larger and very different proposition to the hugely successful 500 city car it was spun from. Some felt though, that it could do with a bit more attitude. Such a thing is served up by the more rugged-looking Trekking version, a variant aiming to help this model begin to forge its own identity.
Some industry observers have it in for retro-styled cars. They see it as a lazy way of raiding the company heirlooms in order to make a quick buck. That's anything but the case though. Fiat will attest to the fact that when reviving a famous name form the past, there's a whole host of potential minefields to tiptoe through. Its 500 city car is one of the very best retro revivals, offering a modern take on a familiar shape while blending exactly the right combination of old and new design features. It's an object lesson in how to do retro right.
Sometimes it doesn't go quite so swimmingly. In a bid to emulate what MINI had done in creating a family of cars spun off a familiar theme, Fiat created the 500L, a bigger and more spacious 500. That characteristic domed roof look was lost and the 500L looked like a generic mini-MPV that had had some Fiat 500 design cues grafted onto it. Of course, Fiat fans will point to the old 600 Multipla for provenance but that fact was lost on most buyers. As a result, sales have been slow to pick up. Beneath the hype though lies a very decent car and in beefed-up Trekking form, is a more self-confident take on the 500L theme.
The Trekking gets the same engine choice as the rest of the 500L range, which means a 93bhp 1.4-litre petrol opening proceedings while there's also a version of the revolutionary two-cylinder TwinAir engine, in this case generating 104bhp, 20bhp up on the 500. Diesel customers are catered for with a very good 1.3-litre Multijet with 84bhp. This will make 60mph from standstill in 11.3 seconds with a decent slug of torque on offer. Next up is a 105bhp 1.6 Multijet diesel. Then there are also two 120bhp powerplants, a 1.6-litre Multijet II turbo-diesel and a 1.4 T-Jet petrol.
So it's just a front-wheel drive car with some plastic slathered down the side, right? Not quite. The key feature of the Trekking is its adoption of Traction +, Fiat's clever traction control system that improves traction over harsh and slippery terrain and costs far less than conventional 4x4 systems. This system uses the ESC stability control electronics to simulate the behaviour of a self-locking electro-mechanical differential. The system is activated using a button on the dashboard and can be operated at speeds of up to 19mph. Under conditions of low or zero grip from any driven wheel, the control unit detects slip and commands the hydraulic circuit to apply braking force to the slipping wheel, thus shifting drive to the wheel on the surface offering better grip. This ensures the best possible traction even over the roughest surfaces with poor grip. You'll be amazed what a front-wheel drive can do. An additional 13mm of ground clearance also helps when taking the car along unmetalled tracks.
Design and Build
The 500L Trekking aims to project a more dynamic image than the rather suburban 500L and as such, gets model-specific front and rear bumpers, side skirts and mouldings, air intakes, a skid-plate and standard fog lights. It's offered in a choice of seven paint finishes, the signature colour being Hip Hop Yellow, which is unique to the Trekking model. Terrible name, great colour. The raised suspension offers a marginally more commanding driving position. And thumbs up also to 17" diamond alloy wheels with Mud and Snow tyres ensuring decent grip in bad conditions.
The interior on the Trekking version features fabric seat upholstery with eco-leather inserts. Customers can choose between two different combinations: magnesio grey fabric with brown leather inserts or black fabric with white inserts. As with the standard 500L, there's a respectable amount of space inside, especially if you find you've grown out of the minuscule standard 500.
The big benefit indoors is a sliding rear seat system. Slide the seats forward and there's still a reasonable amount of leg room and three can sit on the rear bench in acceptable comfort as long as they're not of linebacker dimensions. The 414-litre square boot features side cubbies, a three-position floor and pop-out bag holders. The rear seats can tumble forwards, while if you need to take really long loads you'll find the front passenger seat back can also fold flat. Fiat claims there are no fewer than 22 different storage spaces dotted about the car.
Market and Model
There are no specific trim levels offered with the 500L Trekking, so that makes the pricing relatively easy to get to grips with. The range opens at just over £17,000 for a 1.4 Trekking petrol, with diesel options kicking off at a tad over £18,500.
This is the first car in the Fiat range to provide City Brake Control as standard. This system is designed to reduce the effects of low-speed collision in traffic. By sending out laser impulses and registering how quickly they're reflected, City Brake Control can detect remotely how far the car is from other obstacles.
This information is gathered by a sensor behind the windscreen which then transfers it to an electronic control unit for processing. If the control unit thinks the car is going to have a collision and the driver isn't doing anything to stop it, the brakes are applied. It operates at speeds between 3 and 19mph so, so it's not an infallible system that'll prevent you folding the front of your car up if you're reading a text message at 30mph.
Cost of Ownership
The 500L Trekking's good value upfront prices are matched by some very competitive economy and emissions figures. There have been some well publicised concerns about customer economy figures coming nowhere near the published numbers for the TwinAir engine, but the 1.3-Multijet diesel is a different kettle of fish. With a little moderation, you might get within sniffing distance of the official 62.8mpg figure. Its emissions are rated at 117g/km.
Buyers also get the choice of a Dualogic transmission on this model which not only takes the strain from your left leg but also reduces emissions to just 105g/km and increases fuel economy to 70.6mpg. If funds are a little tighter, the entry-level 1.4 petrol units gets 45.6mpg and emits 145g/km. It'll be a personal decision from there whether you see spending an additional £1,500 to get the TwinAir with its claimed 58.9mpg and 112g/km as good value for money. I think I'd be tempted to forgo the additional 10bhp and stick with the cheaper car.
The Fiat 500L Trekking is an unexpectedly appealing thing. I'll freely admit that I've never been a fan of the way the original 500L was styled, but your opinion there may well vary. The Trekking model distances itself further from the original 500 city car and as such seems to justify its inclusion in the Fiat range a little more confidently. The mark-up of £700 over the standard 500L doesn't seem at all unreasonable given the extra equipment, not least of which is that clever City Brake Control system.
Otherwise you get all the added practicality benefits of the 500L, which means loads of internal storage, a decent 414-litre boot and a sliding rear bench seat so that you can decide whether you want to prioritise rear seat space or luggage room or a compromise between the two. The 500L didn't get off to the easiest start to life, but the Trekking would seem to suggest that this model is just hitting its stride.