6

This is Fiat's answer to the Mini Countryman, the Fiat 500L Trekking. Though strictly front-wheel drive, there are off-road concessions in the form of a 10 percent jump in ride height over the standard 500L (bringing clearance to a useful 145mm), Fiat's proprietary grip-hunting Traction+ electronics and standard-fit mud and snow tyres.

For a premium of £700 (which takes the lead-in price to £17,925), Trekking spec supplements the 500L's top-whack Lounge trim whose highlights include panoramic glass roof, Fiat's Uconnect infotainment system, an 5in touchscreen display, DAB radio, Bluetooth, dual-zone climate control, hill holding, rear parking sensors and auto lights and wipers.

Fiat have then added specially designed 17in alloy wheels, a rugged bodykit, plastic side mouldings and cruise control to the package.

City Brake Control is also standard, and brings three benefits: frontal collision avoidance (using lasers to detect and react to impending obstacles), pre-fill braking to 'charge' the system ahead of a possible heavy braking event, and brake assist to increase stopping power under heavy pedal pressure.

A fourth benefit of the system is cheaper insurance versus other 500Ls, but this is countered by slightly reduced fuel economy that also pushes the diesel models into the next tax band.

The engine line-up mirrors the 500L's with one petrols and two diesels: the 1.4-litre naturally aspirated four-pot (94bhp), plus 1.3-litre and 1.6-litre Multijet turbodiesels of 94bhp and 118bhp respectively. The 1.3-litre diesel gets a five-speed manual or automated manual gearbox, while the others use six-speed manuals.

Our 1.6-litre diesel test car is priced at £20,965, putting it in the squarely in between the outgoing but similarly powerful front-drive Mini Countryman Cooper D and the Cooper D All4, while the older Trekking is £1500 cheaper than the 2017 Mini Countryman Cooper. The Mini is quicker and cleaner, the Trekking fights back on spaciousness with an additional 310 litres of carrying capacity, albeit for the time being, as the new Countryman is said to come with 470 litre of boot space.

The front occupants sit high in seats specific to the Trekking that are mainly covered with a mesh that looks sturdy but could trap dirt, supplemented with attractive faux-leather inserts. Most surfaces are nicely fitted and finished – you’ll need to search to find any truly rudimentary plastics.

Inside there are numerous interior storage spaces, including handy cubbies in the front seat-backs, and the rear seats (60:40, sliding, splitting, folding and pivoting forward so the bases go vertical) offer ample room for third and fourth passengers, and space for a narrow fifth. A false boot floor can sit flush with or above the rear lip. In other words, it’s a very flexible cabin.

Although this is the quickest Trekking, pace is certainly on the leisurely side, however the engine doesn’t labour quite as much as in the larger 500L MPW and can pull smoothly from 1500rpm. It does suffer the same failings in refinement, though, with audible protestation under rising revs, albeit drivetrain vibration is well isolated. The pleasingly chunky gearlever marshals smooth, positive shifts.

While the engine settles at a cruise, the mud and snow tyres grumble a fair bit, especially over rougher asphalt. The Trekking’s raised suspension includes stiffer springs and revised dampers and bushings. Despite this, roll is quite pronounced, albeit within perfectly tolerable limits for this application, while the ride fidgets over high-frequency bumps and is on the firm side in town. There’s also a fingertip-light city mode to the electric steering that is otherwise reasonably direct but mute.

Fiat says the Trekking is ‘for the city dweller that can’t wait for the weekend,’ and has made provision for those weekends to involve some light off-roading. Although unlikely to spend much time on scrubby gravel tracks, this is where the car felt most at home as it loped comfortably along, making use of that healthy ride height, and happily canted itself onto steep-ish verges.

We had few challenges to offer the Traction+ system (operable up to 19mph), which brakes a slipping front wheel to send more drive to the other, and an aggressive standing start with one front tyre on gravel and the other on grass yielded a nippy and stable getaway. As for City Brake Control, a simulated emergency stop on tarmac also majored on stability and exhibited impressive halting force.

The Fiat 500L Trekking’s lack of four-wheel drive won’t matter to most, especially with electronic traction trickery and 4x4-grade tyres on its side. There’s no nippy engine available and it's not the nimblest of drives, but again, these aren’t especially pertinent points for most buyers.

However, the noisy engine, grumbly tyre characteristics and fidgety ride are a nuisance. However, the significantly cheaper Skoda Yeti 1.2 TSI offers more space still thanks to its removable back seats, a much more refined drivetrain and achieves a measure of charm without trying quite as hard.

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