It’s not often that I choose to review a car that’s a.) just been launched and b.) I’m not overly interested in, but sometimes it seems the fates conspire for certain things to happen and this car review is one of them. The car in question is the Fiat 500L, a car which cynics may deride as being merely the product of over ambitious product planners and marketers, keen to milk the popularity of the regular 500 dry. But look closely and there is a pretty decent car lurking underneath the heaps of chrome and faux-MINI detailing, and after reading what seems like endless reviews over the last couple of days, combined with seeing one in the flesh, I feel that I am entirely qualified to give an in depth review (HA).
To give some context about where the 500L sits in the Fiat line-up we have to look back to the original Nuova 500 and it’s 600 relative. Essentially the car that got a post-war Italy moving, the 500 was a top seller in Italy (and to a lesser extent Europe) throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. The 600 was the bigger brother to this car, having been launched a few years prior, and offered slightly roomier accommodation for passengers-especially the ‘Multipla’ version which offered seating for six in a footprint not much larger than the original Mini. Sucessors have come and gone for both cars, but none have matched the charm (and arguably the success) of these two models.
Fast forward to 2003 and Fiat were congratulating themselves on the extremely well-received Panda, itself an update of a city car held in high regard in Italy and across Europe. But despite their successes in the city-car and supermini class, Fiat have never been able to duplicate this in their larger models. The revival of the Multipla nameplate in 1999 was met with applause, and then disgust as the covers were pulled off of a model whose primary styling influence appears to have been some sort of obese spider. It was a good car yes, but with a 2-row 6 seater arrangement and those headlamps it was always going to be a risky move for Fiat, and despite rave reviews (and a later dull facelift) the car was never really a success. When the company helped bail out Chrysler in 2009 they decided to use the Dodge Journey as a replacement in the form of the Fiat Freemont. Apparently that car is quite successful in mainland Europe but it has never sold in the UK.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…going back to the Panda’s launch and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the ‘nuova 500’, Fiat decided to use the platform to launch an updated version of the car for the 21st century. By no means was this an unexpected move given the success of retro models like the MINI and Beetle, but the 500 took the market by storm upon it’s introduction in 2007, and in fact continues to sell fantastically despite remaining pretty much unchanged for 6 years! Sharing it’s platform with the under-performing new Ford KA, the 500 managed to offer cute styling, a modern (if unexciting) interior and practicality that matched the MINI (in a much smaller body), and all for a price which knocked even conventional city-car rivals out of the park!
Obviously Fiat did not rest on their laurels and numerous special editions and variants have followed, notably the Abarth hot-hatch version, the ‘500C’ semi-convertible and even an electric ‘500e’ version have all been offered to buyers. That includes buyers in North America, where the enthusiasm for the car and the buyout of Chrysler have enabled Fiat to get back into a market it abandoned many years ago, and some might say that the newest variant, the 500L, is a direct result of this expansion into the American market where size is everything.
Before I start on the new car properly, it is important to note that the 500L has absolutely NO connection with the other cars in the 500 stable, apart from the branding and some styling cues (and engines) anyway. Built on a modified version of the already quite old Fiat supermini platform, the 500L offers seating for 5, with rear doors and a larger boot over the smaller car. The dashboard is also incredibly different, and loses much of it’s retro dials, painted surfaces and some might say charm. Others though might say that the interior is much more grown up and modern than that of the 500, which has it’s roots (and some cabin parts) sourced from that same 2003 Fiat Panda launched so long ago. Overall the 500L seems like it would be a decent place for a young family to spend time, with enjoy toys to keep the adults happy and enough space (and glass) out back for children or teenagers not to feel claustrophobic.
Outside is probably the most controversial aspect of the 500L, as stylist’s attempts to graft the 500’s cute and friendly face onto a larger body have not really met much success. From the front the taller body makes the car’s face look a little goofy, with the extra grill and headlights appearing a little fussy in comparison even to the MINI. Small wheels don’t help disguise the height of the car, and from some other angles the car looks like a rip-off of the MINI Countryman…itself a car which has met with controversy. I guess this might just be in pictures though, because seeing one in the flesh today it was evident that it far from the abomination that was the Multipla, and in fact is merely just being honest about it’s mini-MPV status.
On the road and the platform does not instill the car with the greatest handling prowess, but neither does it need to considering it’s brief or target market. A smooth ride and light steering apparently are tidy around town, and the engines on offer give reasonable performance. A 1.4L petrol is the entry level engine and in all likelihood will be best suited for most driver. A 0.9L Turbo will offer a bit more performance but in the 500 is a lot less economical than figures suggest. Diesel fiends will have to cope with a 1.3L until the 1.6L is launched later in the year, but even given the larger size the 500L is unlikely to be used as a motorway cruiser and buyers will probably be better off with the cheaper 1.4 petrol.
I can’t comment much on equipment levels or specifications because the reviews I’ve read have been a mixture of American and British. The available espresso machine is an interesting talking point, but most buyers are going to be better off with the decent Blu&Me navigation system which also includes Bluetooth. A hot Abarth version is possible, but given the other models which are going to be added to the 500L lineup it seems unlikely. Specifically I’m talking about the Trekking version of the 500L, which comes with the 500 Abarth’s 1.4 Turbo (in the US at least). Whether the Trekking is launched in the UK might depend on whether the rumoured 500X variant is launched, which would be a rival to the Juke and Countryman.
The most controversial addition to the 500L’s lineup is the one which was officially launched this week…a 7 seat version called the 500L Living (or MPW in the UK). The idea of a 7 seat supermini MPV is a strange one to begin with, but it at least gives the car a bit of a niche in the market. More than this though there is the issue of styling, I mean buyers will likely be able to judge for themselves but the dimensions of the 500L MPW do not lend themselves for a cohesive design; in fact many commenters are comparing the car to the controversial Multipla from the early 00’s. This brings me back round to my personal issue to the 500L itself…it’s name. I can’t really see why they chose to give a car which is so different to the rest of it’s lineup; the 500C and 500e are both cars based on the basic 500, but why on Earth not chose to call the new car a 600-in keeping with it’s historic models! As for the 500L Living/MPW, well tacking on these acronyms merely compounds this even more…if they had called it XL then that would have made more sense, but I guess that would have left them open to more criticism.
As a distinctive rival to the likes of the Kia Soul, Toyota Urban Cruiser and even the MINI Countryman, the 500L is a pretty good package for most buyers. Personally I’d be tempted to save up a few extra pennies to get MINI’s entry into the segment, but for anyone who wants a better value and arguably more practical alternative, you could do a lot worse than the Fiat.