A bigger, more practical version of everyone's favourite little Italian.
The Fiat 500L is a proper spacious five-seater that blends elements of a city-friendly vehicle and a compact SUV.
In many ways the Fiat 500L mimics its Mini rival by taking what was originally a small car (Mini Cooper/Fiat 500) and creating larger and more family-friendly variants (Mini Countryman/Fiat 500L). So while a standard 500 may not make that much sense for a small family, the five-door, five-seater L variant may be ideal.
From the outside the Fiat 500L certainly takes after its smaller brother. It follows a similar approach to its front and rear design, but arguably fails to exhibit the same ‘cool-factor’ as the original, with a peculiar slopping front overhang and people mover-like proportions.
Compared with the Fiat 500, the L is 150mm taller (1670mm), measures 680mm longer in length (4249mm) and is 150mm wider (1774mm without mirrors). Compared with a rival small wagon such as the Hyundai i30 Tourer, the 500L offers 236mm less length, but is only 6mm narrower.
The 500L also has 42 percent additional interior space than its smaller brother. There’s ample head and legroom both for front and rear passengers while the seats themselves are supportive and well sculptured.
Two child seats can easily fit (via ISOFIX points) in the back but the boot might struggle to take much more than a large pram and the week’s groceries. Rated at around 400L in five-seat form, the 500L's rear seats can be setup in eight different ways and 1500 different seating combinations!
The Fiat 500L is otherwise a familiar place for Fiat fans. It’s the same colourful experience as before, blended with simplicity in a truly Italian way. Five adults can easily fit inside without much issue.
The standard Fiat 500 range is set for a big refresh mid 2014, which will leave the 500L’s local arrival for early 2015, and we expect the refresh next year may also modernise the cabin that little bit more, although the fundamentals are good.
Certainly the optional 5 or 6.5-inch infotainment touchscreen system lifts the cabin ambience and is likely to include satellite navigation as well as Bluetooth connectivity for Australian models.
Perhaps its most appealing interior feature is the panoramic views gained by the clever use of glass all around the vehicle. It’s hard to tell in photos but the pillars at the front are neatly divided up with large portions of glass that bring in a much wider view of the outside world than would otherwise be possible.
A 1.4-litre turbocharged multiair petrol engine powered our Fiat 500L. A choice of a six-speed manual transmission (tested here) or a proper dual-clutch automatic transmission (instead of the robotized manual dual-logic system found in the current 500) will be available.
In European markets, a 1.3-litre diesel and 0.9-litre petrol turbo are also on offer.
We drove the 500L in freezing conditions in Detroit, and in the four-cylinder engine’s American state-of-tune (poor quality fuel) it still pumps out a very healthy 119kW of power and 250Nm of torque. Australian delivered models should expect around 125kW to match the Alfa Romeo Giulietta with which it shares its engine.
Behind the wheel the Fiat 500L is a zippy little thing. Although it weighs a reasonable 1453kg (plus 23kg for the automatic), its power to weight ratio and particularly its in-gear torque delivery means it has a sense of purpose when you flatten the accelerator.
The six-speed manual gearbox is smooth and effortless with only moments of hesitation before the turbocharged engine delivers its might. Still, we remain optimistic about the dual-clutch automatic variants that don’t stumble like the current single-clutch systems.
In snowy conditions around Detroit, at one stage we found our 500L more capable of delivering its power to the ground than the Dodge Challenger SRT8 muscle car. It had the jump from the lights and never looked back.
With its precise steering control and well-engineered chassis, it’s also surprisingly good around corners.
During our drive we noticed that although the 500L is a higher riding car, it doesn’t seem to give that command seating ride-height advantage found in similarly-priced compact SUVs.
The Fiat 500L is expected to start in the mid to high 20s, but will unlikely be a volume seller in the 500 range.
In Europe and North America the 500L is available in Pop, Easy, Lounge and the rugged Trekking variant. It’s still unknown which of the variants will make it to the Australian market but we suspect the entry model, Lounge and, given our affection for SUVs, the cladded-up Trekking are a good bet.
While Fiat Australia may look to shift sourcing of the standard 500 from Europe to Mexico in late 2014 (in order to get a proper automatic transmission), the Fiat 500L is currently made in Kragujevac, Serbia only.
Overall, the Fiat 500L in Australia will be a niche vehicle for those that want the Italian flair of a 500 but need the extra space.