Fiat's 500L has brought a bit of chic to the compact part of the five-seater mini-MPV market. The cleverest version has the Italian brand's hi-tech 0.9-litre TwinAir petrol engine. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
The Fiat 500L expands the 500 family with a more practical proposition. The cute good looks of the original city car have been traded for something a little less striking, but the 500L offers decent practicality, a well styled cabin and some particularly good engines, including the 0.9-litre TwinAir petrol unit we're looking at here.
We get what Fiat is trying to do here. It's not that difficult to arrive at the conclusion that the Italian brand has cast a rather green-eyed gaze at the success of the MINI family and has raided its own back catalogue in order to come up with a riposte. The 500 city car is a rather lovely little thing that presses all the right buttons - an Italian Mini if you will. Now Fiat is keen to create a 500 family and the first car spun off from the core product is the 500L. The meaning of the 'L' here is clear enough: it stands for 'Large'. The 500 part of the badge though, might be seen as something of a misnomer here, as a more faithful forebear to this model is actually the Italian brand's 600 Multipla of 1956. The 500L uses the same flat-roofed one-box look, but things have come on a way since then, not least under the bonnet where a hi-tech 0.9-litre TwinAir unit is the pick of the petrol units on offer.
With a bigger overall footprint and consequently more upfront weight than the bijou 500, the 500L needs a set of rather more heavy duty motors. Opening proceedings is a 93bhp 1.4-litre petrol unit, but it's worth shaking the piggy bank a bit further to get yourself into a model with the revolutionary two-cylinder TwinAir engine we're looking at here, in this case generating 105bhp, 20bhp up on that of the version fitted to the ordinary 500. Naturally you can't expect the 500L to be as light on its feet as the 500 in town, but Fiat has worked to make the car as easy as possible to drive, taking weight out of the steering and delivering brilliant all-round visibility, helped in no small part by a very high and upright seating position. The springs and dampers are geared towards comfort rather than chuckability and that's something you'll appreciate on pock-marked city streets.
Design and Build
The effectiveness of the styling is clearly a subjective call but few who I canvassed felt the 500L was a pretty car in the same way the 500 is. A lot of that car's character was bound up in its silhouette, and the 500L just looks that little bit more generic. It rides on a modified Punto platform and while it's not as big as a lumbering MINI Countryman, at 414cm long, it's no flyweight. The interior probably works a good deal better than the exterior treatment. The huge glass area gives the cabin a light, airy feel and the fascia looks classy with a touch screen infotainment system, big dials and chunky controls. It's reasonably practical too, the key benefit being the sliding rear seats. Whizz them 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
While 500L pricing starts from around £15,000, you'll need from around £16,500 to get yourself into the 0.9-litre TwinAir petrol version we're looking at here. So in rough terms, you're looking at a model-for-model asking price that's around £1,500 less than a comparable MINI Countryman. Comparably priced Supermini-MPVs like Citroen's C3 Picasso and Ford's B-MAX might also be seen as rivals. The 500L range starts with two trim levels, Pop Star and Easy, which cost the same but have different features. Both get a 5-inch touchscreen radio, Bluetooth, six airbags, the ESP stability programme, body-coloured electric door mirrors, cruise control and leather for the gearknob and steering wheel. As for the differences, well the Pop Star features a body-coloured dashboard, alloy wheels and side door mouldings to appeal to a 'cool, young audience', while the Easy gets rear parking sensors, a soft-touch dashboard and electric rear windows in addition to the standard equipment, to attract drivers looking for greater comfort.
Cost of Ownership
The 500L can't afford to be an expensive car to run. There's just too much quality in its immediate group of rivals. That said, there's also a huge array of variety in the supermini-MPV sector and nothing quite offers the same boutique feel of the 500L, so a certain level of demand should keep residual values from falling off a cliff. Day to day running costs look to have been kept in check too. There have been some well publicised concerns about customer economy figures coming nowhere near the published numbers for the TwinAir engine, but the quoted figures are certainly very impressive, Fiat citing a combined cycle fuel return of 58.9mpg and a CO2 figure of 112g/km. Insurance is group 11.
The Fiat 500L isn't going to command the column inches of its city car forebear but it might just be a more relevant vehicle for many more potential customers, especially in 0.9-litre petrol TwinAir form. It also offers something a little different from the usual boring supermini-MPV norm with an interior that retains a certain sense of occasion. The exterior lines are largely dictated by the car's role, and while Fiat has done its best to integrate 500 design cues into them, not everyone will like the end result. That's a relatively minor grouse though. The rest of the 500L package is a good deal more impressive, with the TwinAir engine looking the pick of the petrol bunch if you want a bit of poke and to keep a cap on day to day running costs. The 500L might be unoriginal, it's certainly not pretty and it might even be accused of being opportunist, but out of these unpromising ingredients has emerged a surprisingly credible car.