First Drive: Fiat 500L

Fiat’s 500 is all grown up…

Fiat’s 500 is a tiny car that’s hugely successful, and that success carries on with the 500X – a small SUV that’s looks like it started life as a 500 and swallowed an awful lot of steroids.

The 500L is a bit of an anomaly though. It’s a traditional people carrier, much like the Citroen C3 Picasso or Ford B-Max, which is a segment that’s going out of fashion as the world switches to tough-looking SUVs. Fiat has resisted that change by giving the 500L a facelift, available here in September, fighting strong with cute.

Amazingly, it works well. What was once a slightly awkward looking car now looks far better realised, with a new front end (more chrome, some LEDs, and a bit of reshaping) that ties the car in nicely with the rest of the 500 family. Yes, the long body (especially in the extra-large Wagon model) can look a little graceless from some angles, but the space it frees up inside makes the 500L a compelling family car.

It’s new families that Fiat is targeting, ideally capturing 500 drivers who now need something a little more practical, and there’s no doubting that this really is a sensible option. Up front there are high-riding seats and clever quarter-light side windows that combine to create an airy space, but even those in the back will be happy with whats available. There’s plenty of head, knee and shoulder room for six-foot adults or teenagers, although that’s assuming there’s no panoramic glass roof fitted – this eats away at headroom significantly. Those rear seats split and fold flat, but they also slide back and forth, allowing owners to choose between a bigger boot or more legroom. The boot itself is a good size, and there’s no lip to lift heavy items over, but it’s a slightly odd shape.

Spend out on the Wagon model and there’s a third row of seats. These two seats are very much short-journey jump seats, and they eat into the available boot space, but the car has been stretched to account for that. Both options come with some 22 cubby holes around the cabin, ideal if children like to hide small objects like mobile phones, house keys and half chewed sweets.

The interior on all models has been tidied up nicely, with the addition of a seven-inch touchscreen in the centre console that houses the radio, Bluetooth, sat-nav and most other infotainment options. It’s easy to use, although the screen can get a tad crowded at times, but other essential controls (climate control and radio volume, for example) are looked after by physical knobs and dials. It’s a great balance between minimalism and usability. A new instrument panel is clear and bright, with a digital screen in the centre relaying vital information directly to the driver. A new steering wheel also brings with it controls for most functions at the fingertips, making the revised 500L a safer option.

Despite the practicality, it retains the Italian design flair that is expected with a Fiat, with body coloured swathes of plastic across the dashboard, interesting seat fabrics and a leather-clad steering wheel.

Performance and handling won’t get anybody writing home with excitement, but the 500L remains pleasingly comfortable at most times. It’s certainly firm, but that controls the tall body well, and it feels more compliant with speed making motorway runs a breeze. The 118bhp 1.6-litre diesel engine gives modest performance, with 0-62mph taking a leisurely 10.7 seconds, but economy of 67.3mpg is promised officially. The smaller 1.3-litre diesel is lethargic and won’t help with economy, while the 1.4-litre petrol engine is smoother but quite thirsty. A beefed-up Cross version adds protective plastic cladding and trick electronics to get across minor off-road obstacles, but it’s no go-anywhere 4×4.

What it is, especially in regular 500L spec, is a good, honest, sensible car that ticks enough practical boxes for young families. Carrying the cute as a button styling and exciting driving dynamics over from the tiny 500 might not have been entirely successful, but its sensible bigger brother could still leave a smile on your face.

Model Tested: Fiat 500L Lounge 1.6 Multiet 120HP
Price: £21,000 est
Engine: 1.6-litre turbo diesel
Top speed: 117 mph
0-62 mph: 10.7 seconds
Power: 120 PS (118 bhp)
Torque: 320 Nm (236 ft lb)
Monthly PCP*: £308
Official fuel economy: 67.3 mpg
Road test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 112 g/km
Car Tax: £140 (£160 in Year 1)
Insurance group: 18A
* Monthly PCP estimate based on 20% deposit, 36 month term, 5% APR, final payment of 36%.
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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.