It’s a Fiat 500, isn’t it? Is it an MPV? Is it a hatchback? Does it have the street-wise cheeky charm of the little 500 or the comforting rounded shape of a mamma who will look after your every need?
The frontal appearance resembles the Fiat 500 in a way that suggests it has undergone plastic surgery to put a young face on an older head, but you’ll have to judge if it has worked.
Fiat is trying to play it every way, hoping to embrace as many potential buyers as possible.
The strategy underlying this is to build within Fiat a 500-brand so the original two-door now grows to a five-door, and there is another coming with up to seven seats, and still in the wings is a 4WD Trekking model. Something for everyone in fact. It is much the same trend done with the MINI brand within BMW.
The Serbian-built Fiat 500L joins the range in the middle of March as a mini MPV, giving 400-litres of boot space behind its fifth door and a capability to carry a flat-pack up to 2.4 metres long. It’s the IKEA idea.
Sitting on a longer chassis than its sibling it is also taller and wider and that space has been put to good effect, seating five with a lot of room, many oddments spaces and compartments inside as well as offset fold and tumble back seats to gradually increase capacity to over 1,200-litres.
There are 15-models in the range from just under £15,000 to £18,900 based on three trim levels with the Pop Star and Easy identically priced but differently trimmed to reflect tastes, and the top-line Lounge version carries £2,000 additional equipment for £1,400 more.
It is the first Fiat to have standard UConnect system to manage communications by voice, remotely or touchscreen, Bluetooth links and you can specify an in-built coffee maker and high quality sound system.
The powertrains are more familiar with 95bhp 1.4 and 105bhp 900cc TwinAir petrol units along with 85bhp 1.3 and 105bhp 1.6 MultiJet diesels. Most have 6-speed manual boxes but there is a 5-speed version and a sole 5-speed semi-automatic depending on engines.
At the Fiat 500L introduction last week, UK managing director Steve Zanlunghi said it was coming at the right moment for them after eight months of growing sales helped by the Panda and its 4x4 Trekking stablemate.
“We did a teaser on the internet at the end of last year and that generated 1,500 advance orders out of the 2,000 we hold now and we have a few tricks up our sleeve to extend our use of the internet in this way,” he said.
Fiat UK marketing director Elena Bernadelli added that the 500L would be pitching into the biggest sector of the British market, accounting for a third of sales, and it has been carefully packaged to incorporate the features that most buyers want, but at the same time surprise them with options to personalise their 500L in a unique way. Only time will tell if it gets a big vote of support.
The Fiat 500 family has spawned a new generation and just like its human counterparts, the 500L is bigger than the current crop of two-door saloon and convertibles.
In reality it is a completely different car built on a bigger chassis than under the 500 and it comes only as a five-door five-seater in the UK and with a simple choice of petrol or diesel engines and three trim levels. Later this year we will see a seven-seat version as well as a 4WD Trekking derivative.
The size immediately strikes you, particularly when parked next to the normal Fiat 500, and you ride higher up to give better vision over the roofs of vehicles in traffic queues but we found the B and C-pillars and the high waistline at the back restricted sight-lines when pulling into traffic or reversing into a parking bay and you rely on sensors, which are not on the entry level model but come with the Easy and Lounge specifications.
Our first-drive in the Fiat 500L Pop Star with 105hp 1.6 engine covered a mixture of urban and country roads with a little bit of motorway and overall averaged close to 48mpg. The 1st and 2nd gears are good for moving off with a family or load aboard although you will find yourself quickly needing to go up the box on main roads and motorways.
The long travel and high-biting clutch combined with a neat and effortless manual gearchange and the dual-mode electric steering had a good turning circle, was vibration-free, and gave a reasonable degree of feeling on twisting roads. Secondary controls were straightforward and conveniently laid out, the instruments clear and easy to read and the air conditioning was effective.
For a family car the access was very good and room inside generous, with a big boot which was easy to load from about knee-height and quick folding back seats. Capacity was reasonable at 400-litres and it will carry flat-pack objects up to 2.4 metres.
The Fiat 500L sits high on the road and it does roll around corners, which is not ideal in a family car, while the suspension is biased towards firmness on the 17-inch wheels and tyres fitted, but it does not exhibit the agility of the smaller stablemate and it wanted to understeer and run wide on curves rather than follow a set line through a corner.
There is noticeable road noise but wind and engine produced little sound which was intrusive.
The added versatility of the two-back doors and that hatchback will increase the appeal of the Fiat brand among families which may not have up to now considered it.
It is what may be considered a cross-over, possessing features of a large hatchback combined with the chunkier appearance of a 4WD, but it’s not an MPV in the traditional sense of being a van with seats. There is a good range of equipment and sensibly priced and stepped trim levels.
The Fiat 500L will open up new doors of opportunity for the company in the UK and anything which boosts sales while increasing competition in the market is to be welcome.
MILESTONES: Fiat 500L 1.6 MultiJet Pop Star. Price: £17,490. Mechanical: 4cyl 16v 105bhp 1598cc turbo-diesel engine, 6sp manual, ventilated/ solid disc brakes, front struts and rear torsion beam with coil springs. Performance: Max 112mph, 0-62mph 11.3sec,fuel capacity/ consumption: 50 litres/ 48mpg, emissions: 117gkm, VED road tax£0 First Year rate then £30 per annum second year onwards. Insurance group: 17. Luggage capacity: 400 to 1,200-litres.Warranty: 3yrs/ 60,000 miles
For: Access, room, equipment, economy. Against: Handling, ride, rear visibility. Robin Roberts Miles Better News Agency