Losing its Spark: Fiat 500L

Everybody loves the Fiat 500. It’s cute, dependable, reliable, cheap and no one will really judge you admitting that you like it. And if you include the 500 Abarth, no one will judge you for buying one either.
How is it then, that the 500L can be so far removed from this proven recipe? Why isn’t the 500L able to demand the same sort of fan following as its baby’s namesake?

The Fiat 500L’s Styling is heavily influenced by its trendier sister.
Just from reading the press bumf, it is clear Fiat have tried their hardest to keep the trendy look and feel of the 500 alive in the L. With trim levels such as “Pop Star” and paint colours including “Hip Hop Yellow” and “Beatbox Green”, the message is clear – the 500L should still appeal to the die hard 500 fans. Offering three distinct models (not just trim levels), the 500L comes in Urban, Wagon and Cross.
The Cross is geared towards some off-roading capability, offering some clever electronic trickery to assist in low grip situations. In Traction+ mode, the brakes are used to create a mock Limited Slip Differential across the front wheels. It will help in a light sprinkling of snow or if you find yourself parked on some soft grass, but the lack of four-wheel drive means you won’t be greenlaning anytime soon. Fiat have also included Gravity Control functionality to let you creep down slopes at a chosen speed, all controlled automatically. Whilst not innovative and new, it is rare to see these features on a car starting at a smidge over £18,000.

The off-road capabilities seem like a gimmick, rather than a true attempt at practical ruggedness.

The Wagon model is a 7-seater MPV. Certainly the most family orientated of the range, it has 7 seats and a child monitoring system to keep an eye on the back seats. The seats are all modular meaning you can adapt the space inside for passengers or cargo. Fiat being Fiat have done this in an easy way so no need for superhuman strength to make the change at the school gates.

Finally, the Urban. Likely to be the best seller of the range, entry prices start at £16,195. Equipped as standard with Cruise control, speed limiter, 5” UConnect system, Bluetooth, USB and AUX connectivity, and multifunction leather steering wheel, the Urban is nice place to be.
A choice of petrol and diesel engines are available, with 95bhp and 120bhp offered in both flavours of fuel. The one to go for is the 95bhp 1.4 petrol which manages to marry impressive performance and almost 50mpg. The 95bhp diesel I had was just a little gutless for overtaking on the motorways, and throttle response kept you on your toes. The long throw throttle pedal doesn’t help, but it’s something you can get used to.

“The 500L always felt huge, and it always kept you guessing about where your car started and finished. “

As soon as I got in to the 500L I was struck by just how big it felt. Yes, the L most likely stands for “Large” (although never confirmed by Fiat), but this is still not a big car. And yet, it manages to completely swamp your sense of special awareness, making you very unsure about exactly where the ends of the car are.
Sometimes a new car can take a while to adjust to, so, giving Fiat the benefit of the doubt, I headed for some French motorways. Alas no – the car didn’t shrink. It always felt huge, and it always kept you guessing about where your car started and finished. Still, onwards…
On the motorway the ride was refined and quiet. The Fiat-Chrysler developed UConnect system works well with iPhone and Android, although there is limited functionality. The lack of any way to share your phone’s Satnav with the car’s screen is a real let down for a car that sells itself on technology and trends. It should be noted that Apple Airplay or Android Auto are available as a £150 optional extra. Media streaming can be done over Bluetooth or USB, and Pause/Play buttons are mirrored.

A minor annoyance whilst trying to be a law-abiding citizen is the speed limiter being all too eager to completely give up. In my opinion, and most likely the opinion of most motorists, the speed limiter should, well, limit your speed. However, if you happen to be on a slight decline, the speed is allowed to creep up past your specified limit and you are greeted with a very annoying buzz and warning about the limiter being overridden. The car blames you. I’ve used a few of these systems and this one just isn’t reliable enough.
The seats and driving position were comfortable for me, although a more rotund colleague commented that they weren’t accommodating enough for him. That’s what test drives are for I guess.

Visibility suffers due to the A pillar design. Technology and equipment are generous however.

The 500L’s interior is a nice place to sit, although visibility suffers due to the quirky design features.
Fiat mention “Class Leading Visibility” in the press release for the 500L, but I must say that this is the opposite of what I found. The A-Pillar has been split in to two with an extension of the windscreen joining the pieces. In principle, this should increase front quarter visibility significantly, but in practice, you end up with two blind spots instead of one. Driving on narrow, twisty mountain roads in southern France, it was nearly impossible to place the front wheels where you wanted them for fear of overshooting your mark. The signature enlarged wing mirrors of the 500L also block your view further out of the windows. The result it having to be Captain Cautious when the road has some corners. The tiny rear window in comparison to large boot door mean reversing is a nightmare too. Without the optional reverse parking sensors, you would be making full use of those plump bumpers. The headlights, even on full beam don’t ever light up corners as they approach. They seem too forward pointing to be of much use on a B-road.
Other than the lack of visibility, the 500L took the twisty mountain roads in its stride. Road holding was good for a car of its class, even on the winter tyres I had. Given its height, roll was kept well controlled, and the car in general will be perfectly stable on the school run.

Moving away from the cutesy Fiat 500, and lacking the panache of the Abarth brethren, the 500L won’t find fans amongst the 500’s hardcore fans. As a sensible and comfortable way of taking the kids to school and maintaining the parental image, the 500L will have a guise to suit all. A few annoying niggles that perhaps not everyone will notice, let alone mind, but you won’t be judged at the school gates in one.

Frumpy styling detracts from the 500’s original “cute-and-quirky”
selling point.
CarFiat 500L Urban
PriceStarting at £16,195As tested, £19,720
Fuel Economy68.9mpgAs tested, 62mpg
ExteriorRelying on the 500’s heritage styling, the 500L remains trendy and funky.****
InteriorA nice place to sit, although visibility is lacking. Poor visibility let it down and seats might not suit all shapes and sizes – try before you buy.**
Performance The diesels make a lot of noise for no real return. Stick with the petrol engines. Fuel economy doesn’t suffer.**
ComfortComfortable ride and confident handling. Very little road noise and spacious front and rear.****
ValueGreat value as a replacement for the family car. Clever interior and spacious boot mean this is a family car contender.****
OverallNot a driver’s car but perfect as a family wagon. The 3 models offered, range of trims and selection of engines mean there is an option for any application on any budget. It won’t be the trendsetter the standard 500 has become though.***

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