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First Drive: Fiat 500L

By / 8 years ago / Road Tests / No Comments

SECTOR: Compact MPV PRICE (March 2013): £14,990–£18,890 FUEL: 45.6–67.3mpg CO2: 110–145g/km

The new 500 has been a real turning point in Fiat’s recent history. In six years, the carmaker has sold over a million globally, including markets such as North America which were never originally scheduled to have it at all. It was only going to be a matter of time before Fiat followed MINI’s lead and grew the hatch into a range, and the 500L is the first step.

While the 500L – the suffix relating to its Large exterior dimensions – bears a few visual similarities to the tiny hatch, the two cars are completely unrelated mechanically. Based on a new platform, the retro styling is now stretched over a car which is as long as a Punto and as wide as a Bravo.

Although it’s a compact MPV, Fiat has broader plans for its newcomer. The 500L is being positioned between the practicality-led compact MPV and style-led B-crossover segments, targeting a larger retail share than its most natural competitors. In fleet, it’ll be aiming for a larger share of public sector, user-chooser and salary sacrifice drivers than the Motability-dominated sector norms.

That’s an unusual route, because there are SUV-influenced versions on the way which may have been easier to distance from the 500 than this. A 500L Trekking, with raised ground clearance and advanced traction control system for loose terrain, has just broken cover at the Geneva Motor Show and a 500X with four-wheel drive is due to follow shortly. Both may have been an easier way to tap into the B-crossover pack, particularly key rival the MINI Countryman, than an MPV.

But it’s not putting buyers off. Fiat’s viral internet campaign about the woes of a young mother sacrificing style and hobbies for parenthood has helped rack up 2,000 orders to date, even before customers have had a chance to drive the car. Styling this cute is unusual in the compact MPV class, too.

Inside, the 500L is surprisingly spacious for what is still a small car. The boot space is split with a removable shelf, the front passenger seat folds and the middle row of seats easily fold and tumble forward to give a 2.4-metre loading area to the bottom of a low tailgate opening. Drivers and front seat passengers have ample headroom and moving the A-pillars back a few inches gives good visibility, but tall adults sitting in the back could find the top of the window line slightly too low.

The range comprises three versions, topped out with a luxurious Lounge trim at £1,400 more than the vibrant Pop Star or comfort-biased Easy versions, both of which are identical in price. Two petrol engines, including a 103bhp TwinAir, and 1.3 and 1.6-litre diesels are available in each. With the TwinAir and 1.3 MultiJet priced identically, Fiat expects retail and fleet sales to be diesel weighted, with fleets opting up to the more powerful but lower-CO2 1.6-litre version.

Equipped with the 103bhp 1.6 MultiJet, the 500L is a solid and stable car in town and at higher speeds. Just as the 500 is a softer drive than the MINI hatch, so the 500L can’t match the agility of the Countryman, and it tends to feel quite high-sided when cornering sharply. Most customers are unlikely to throw it around anyway, though.

With its 300 body colour options and equipment including a portable Lavazza coffee machine, Beats by Dr Dre audio system and the ability to read text messages aloud, the 500L does an effective job of rubbing off a little of the 500’s identity in a more practical format.

Verdict

Fiat may have lost a little of the 500’s cute charm sizing it up to an MPV, but this is a chic car in a practicality focused sector. Efficient engines, an infinitely usable interior space and plenty of customisation options should help hang onto customers whose needs have outgrown the new 500.

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Alex Grant

Trained on Cardiff University’s renowned Postgraduate Diploma in Motor Magazine Journalism, Alex is an award-winning motoring journalist with ten years’ experience across B2B and consumer titles. A life-long car enthusiast with a fascination for new technology and future drivetrains, he joined Fleet World in April 2011, contributing across the magazine and website portfolio and editing the EV Fleet World Website.