What is it?
After the success of the Fiat 500, Fiat plans to pursue a Mini-esque brand extension with vigour, developing what it calls a ‘500 family’. That’s why this 500L model - a much bigger car than the 500, and based on an adapted Punto platform, still retains the marketable ‘500’ badge.
The hope is to retain current 500 buyers as their needs evolve, with inspiration from the space efficient 600 Multipla of 1956. With the Fiat’s endless customisation options and yesteryear appeal, the Mini Countryman comes to mind, but in reality the two cars are quite different: although a 500 SUV is due soon, the 500L is a small MPV with added retro-influenced charm – an alternative to a Citroen C3 Picasso.
There’s a choice of two petrol and one diesel engine at launch: a 1.4-litre 94bhp four-cylinder and a revised TwinAir with 104bhp both powered by the former fuel type and featuring six-speed gearboxes; and a 84bhp 1.3-litre turbo-diesel rowed along with a five-speed gearbox (a 1.6-litre diesel will follow later).
What is it like?
Inside, you sit high and upright on seats with a short squab, your eye seduced by the clever A-pillar/quarterlight design that gives the impression of a curved windscreen like that of the original 50s Multipla. In fact, the quarterlights allow for decent visibility at junctions, unlike many modern cars, and this, added to the painted sections of the dashboard, lift the interior despite some distinctly average plastics in places.
Perhaps the car’s biggest asset is its flexible interior. There’s up to 400 litres of storage in the boot with the rear seats pushed forward – with them slid back the rear legroom is very generous, although tall passengers will find the full length glass roof just robs the last bit of headroom required. A clever mechanism means that with one pull of the handle the rear seats flip up and forward in one automatic movement, although the backrests can simply be folded flat too if desired. The same can be achieved with the front passenger seat, so a very long object can be laid across rear and front seats. A false floor in the boot means a choice of three different floor heights, and there are purportedly 22 individual storage areas throughout the cabin.
The diminutive multi-jet diesel tested here is a decent partner for the car, with much more useable acceleration than the 1.4-litre petrol, if not the infectious character of the twin air. Refinement is good enough, and while 0-62mph in 14.9 seconds sounds painfully tardy, in practise it surges through the gears pleasantly thanks to its ample torque.
Sadly, the cheeky 500 character hasn’t made it though the enlargement process: it steers with town-friendly lightness, but the rack has a remote, obviously electrically assisted feel and it’s certainly no terrier of a car – goading you on to nip through the next gap in the traffic like a 500. Thankfully, the suspension copes reasonably well with urban road decay.
Should I buy one?
In the end, the 500L trades principally on it’s style – it’s a useable, neat package, but cars like this are sold heavily on their image – for the rumoured £14,000-£15,000 start price there are cheaper alternatives if space is at the top of your shopping list. Whether Fiat has managed to transpose enough of the regular 500’s vivacity onto this much bigger, less cute vehicle, only Fiat’s marketing, and the market itself, will decide.
Fiat 500L 1.3 16 Multijet 2
Price: £15,500 (est) for diesel; 0-62mph: 14.9sec; Top speed: 103mph; Fuel economy: 67.3mpg; CO2: 110g/km; Kerb weight: 1315kg; Engine, cc: 4 cyl, turbo-diesel, 1248cc, front, front-wheel drive; Power: 84bhp at 3,500rpm; Torque: 148lb ft at 1500rpm; Gearbox: 5-speed manual