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Review

First Drive: Fiat 500L car review

04/03/13

DON’T BE fooled by the obvious link to the 500 city car; the Fiat 500L is no cutesy little urban barnstormer.

No, forget that entirely. The 500L – L for large – is a bigger, taller, five-seater compact MPV built out of entirely different – and mostly very new – bits from the Italian firm’s latest product line. But, in a way, the 500L is actually just like the 500. It’s just grown up a bit.

You still get the myriad customisation options, the crazy paint colours – although for some reason there’s also a terrible beige – and the cheeky front end styling, but you also get a much higher driving position, infinitely more space around everybody on board and genuine small family car promise.

Fiat’s point is that when the 500 gets too small for your needs, you don’t need to give up too much fun in favour of a dour but eminently sensible family biff-about. The 500L is designed as the perfect step up for people who know and love the tiny funster that inspired the new car’s name.

There are three trim levels in a sort of triangular structure, with two at the bottom sharing a price but very different in nature, and a range-topping option with more trimmings than a post-Lent chicken dinner. Pop Star and Easy are the two cheaper trims, with the former the more stylish and the latter the more comfortable. Then you have Lounge spec, which is rather fancy.

But there’s a distinct lack of a ‘basic’ model. You always get cruise control, for example, and a five-inch touchscreen. Air-con is standard too, so buying a duff model for the sake of price isn’t an option. Easy trim does without alloy wheels but it switches them for rear parking sensors and rear electric windows to add to the universally standard front set.

Lounge gets a bundle more technology and luxury, with dual-zone climate control, 1.5 square metres’ worth of glass roof and automation for the headlights and wipers. Isofix child seat mounting points are standard on every 500L.

The base of the L is a brand new chassis which is set for big things in the Fiat Chrysler group, including the yet to be launched Fiat 500X soft-roader and a brand new small Jeep, which will expose that brand to an entirely new crowd. It needs to be good then, and fortunately the first impressions are.

With its upgraded 17-inch wheels the Lounge-spec car driven here rides remarkably well, and not much worse than it does on the standard 16-inchers. There’s a solidity and a composure about the chassis, but the suspension is for the most part quite supple and the combination makes for a confidence-inspiring, quality feel that hints at the grown-up feeling Fiat is shooting for.

It’s also extremely comfortable, with the upholstery choice in the test car emphasising unusually soft seats with perfectly-shaped backs. All-day cruising should be light work.

Not quite so impressive is the new 1.6-litre diesel engine; the most expensive of the five drivetrain options. It’s a little noisy and doesn’t feel as strong as it should, although the gearing choices for the six-speed manual gearbox are perfect and make for economical cruising. Fiat’s excellent 1.3-litre diesel is also available and costs a tempting £1,000 less. That’s not-so-coincidentally exactly the same as the 0.9-litre petrol TwinAir two-cylinder turbo, which you’ll either love or hate, but if character is important it’s a peerless choice. Otherwise, the little diesel will be cheaper to run and wins the day.

The glass roof is a pretty common feature these days but it’s very welcome here, helping to flood the cabin with light. Pleasant and useful as that is, it can’t overcome the rather chunky twin A-pillar design that could do with slimming down a bit for visibility’s sake, but in real world use it’s rarely an issue.

There are about 300 different design combinations for the outside of the 500L. Add that to 1,500 mash-ups for the interior and you have a car that’s easily mouldable to your personality without it drowning you in an endless sea of choice. What’s more, the personalisation options are well judged; learned from years of experience with the 500.

But style is only a part of the appeal. A three-way adjustable boot floor, very usable rear seats and affordable running costs make the 500L a genuinely practical and sensible compact MPV-style family car. The fact that you don’t need to leave the fun of the 500 behind really just seals the deal.

FACTS AT A GLANCE Model: Fiat 500L 1.6 MultiJet 105 Lounge, £18,890 on the road (range from £14,990).

Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel producing 104bhp and 236lb.ft.

Transmission: Six-speed manual gearbox driving the front wheels.

Performance: Top speed 112mph, 0-62mph in 11.3 seconds.

Fuel economy: 62.8mpg.

CO2 rating: 117g/km.

  • Enginesdiesel
  • Power3 (average performance)
  • 0-60 mph
  • Economy3 (average fuel economy)
  • CO2g/km
  • Insurance groups3 (average costs)
  • Airbags
  • Seats5

Motors.co.uk value verdict:    stars

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