Fiat 500L review | first drive

CarsGuide ·

13 February 2013

Fiat 500L review | first drive
The car is sold on its baby sister's history of frugal size and fuel thirst.

The nimble city-friendly Fiat 500L can be the answer for style-seeking grown-up buyers. You just need to pose the right question. Unveiled at the recent Chicago motor show and due in Australia early next year, the 500L uses the letter to explain its size - Large.

Stretching the iconic Fiat 500 Bambino to seat five people makes sense in the US -- where L-for-large spells value and people like their own space. In Australia it may be seen as an experiment similar to the supersized Mini that's known as the Countryman. That is, a cutesy two-door city car given a dose of steroids while the designers leave the room.

Fiat Chrysler Group Australia spokesperson Lenore Fletcher says the 500L "is definitely on our shopping list. We hope to see it early next year,'' she says. "We have no pricing yet but pricing is something we are very focused on - we'll be doing everything in our power to get it right."

There is also no price for the car in the US. A representative for Fiat in Chicago says that will be announced closer to its US launch in the middle of this year. "We are looking for a value product," she says. "So the price will reflect that."

Asked if it will fare better than the 500, she believes the 500L will be more appealing to Americans because of its cabin size -- which she says is 42 per cent bigger than the two-door model.

TECHNOLOGY

Though the link to the regular-sized 500 is clear - the basic styling of the front end is close enough to show they are related - they use different platforms. It has the Fiat Small-Medium architecture that it shares with the Dodge Dart (nee Alfa Romeo Giulietta) and the 120kW/250Nm 1.4-litre turbo-petrol MultiAir engine.

The US gets the choice of a six-speed manual or the Fiat Group's six-speed dual-clutch box. Though there is a pretence that it suits SUV buyers, it doesn't have all-wheel drive - though a future 500-based car does - and there's virtually no difference in ride height.

DESIGN

Subjectively, it's not a pretty car. It has a bulbous roof painted - on the test car - white that exaggerated its round shape. The headlights are more fishlike - think Nemo the clownfish - and the rounded ancillary lights below appear as an afterthought.

On top of that, the pronounced bumper and front intake look like a serious case of underbite. The 500L is purposeful, but not striking and in that manner, has a lot in common with the Mini Countryman. Which also isn't particularly attractive and certainly not mini.

Physically, the 500L is 650mm longer than the regular 500 and 150mm wider and 150mm taller. The US will add a special edition Trekking version that sits on bigger 17-inch wheels and wears pseudo-offroad plastic panels.

Inside there is a focus on large glass areas. Fiat says that promotes an airy feel. It also has theatre-style rear seats that are about 25mm higher than the front seats to give better vision for children. The dash design remains similar to the standard 500 though the 500L adds two-tone leather and Chryslers U-Connect 5.0 infotainment system with a five-inch touch screen and voice-command control of the audio and telephone.

DRIVING

Fiat US wasn't going to let this car go far. The carpark course showed the 1.4-litre has plenty of torque for good flexibility. It's also very quiet. The six-speed manual on the drive was slick and the electric-assist steering was less vague than some small cars. But the drive was only a taste and too short to test the cars roadholding.

Certainly it feels like a big car. The extra width is the most noticeable difference with the standard 500 and this absence of feeling cramped makes it an easier car to get comfortable in and drive. Seating is very good. The seats are comparatively narrow though have excellent support and firm comfort. Visibility is excellent to all points except the rounded nose but park sensors are available.

The fussy switchgear of the rival Countryman doesn't exist in the 500L, making it an easier car in which to assimilate. The boot area is large and where many hatchbacks have rear seats pushed so close to the back door that luggage space is sacrificed, the 500L has a wide and long cargo area. There is a removable false floor to raise the load height and create a second storage area beneath.

VERDICT

Though a dichotomy - the car is sold on its baby sister's history of frugal size and fuel thirst - and slightly ungainly in styling, it works. Price will be the acid test.

Fiat 500L

Price: TBA
Engine: 1.4-litre turbo-petrol MultiAir engine, 120kW/250Nm
Transmission: six-speed manual or six-speed dual-clutch box

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Written by

Neil Dowling

Published 13 February 2013

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