That the Fiat 500 has been a huge success for Fiat since its launch in the middle of 2007 is beyond question. Many will tell you that this small car, like a number of other small Fiats before it literally saved the company, and they could well be right. For some time Fiat have struggled to replicate the success of their small cars with their larger ones, so it was perhaps no surprise to learn that as they looked to diversify from just offering a traditional C-Segment hatch into something that both capitalised on the market’s move towards crossover-type vehicles and also with more in the way of style and personalisation that they would launch a new model which aped some of the 500’s styling and which even associated itself by name. The result was called the 500L, and it was launched in February 2012. Not to universal acclaim, it has to be said. Many thought that the inflation of the styling cues from the regular 500 to something that is longer than a Punto, significantly taller than a 500 and as wide as a Bravo was not entirely successful, and when the first drive reviews came in, they were not entirely positive, either. However, there were those who disagreed and who rather liked the cheeky if slightly bulbous styling, the array of personalisation options and the car’s roominess as well as its personality. Although it has been on sale for nearly 5 years by the time of this test, it is a slight surprise that I’d never actually driven one. Well, not the standard car, anyway. I did spend a week with the extended 7-seater version which is known in the UK as the 500L MPW and in its native Italy where I had the car, as the 500L Living. The more time I spent with it, the more I came to appreciate it for what it was trying to be. That was back in 2014. Apart from a few tweaks to equipment levels, there have been no significant changes to it since then. My chance to test one on UK soil when a 2017 model was offered to me as the Loan Car whilst my Abarth was in for a service. The car was adorned with massive advertising stickers down the sides, which rather deterred me from taking many pictures of it, so there are fewer photos than usual in a test report.
The 500L comes with a range of petrol engines. The diesels are based around the well-known M-Jet unit and are 1.3 and 1.6 litres in capacity developing 85 and 120 bhp, whilst the petrols start with the 1.4 litre 16 valve unit with 95 bhp and are topped by the interesting 2 cylinder TwinAir which puts out 105 bhp . All have front wheel drive and most models come with a 6 speed manual gearbox but a robotised MTA automatic is offered with some engines and trims. My test car had the entry level 1.4 litre petrol unit. There is no way that you would describe this 500L as rapid, and initially you might even think it is not that brisk. But you need to remember that this is a small Fiat and drive it accordingly. You need to drive it hard and to use the gears more than you perhaps would do with some of its rivals. There was a six speed manual gearbox in the test car, by all accounts preferable to the MTA automatic version. The gearchange is a bit vague, lacking the precision you get in the very best of modern cars, with the long gearlever, which falls to hand nicely, needing you to move it quite carefully to engage a gear cleanly. Once at speed, the 500L is generally quite refined, though on the motorway there was notable wind noise. I did not drive the 500L that far, collecting it in Swindon, and basically taking it back home to Bristol and then back to Swindon again. It came with “some” fuel in it and the request was to return it showing the same level on the gauge, always hard to judge. I estimate, as backed up by the trip computer, that the car achieved around 40 mpg. There are two modes for the steering. Even in normal mode it is on the light side, lacking the precision and feel that you get in the very best of driver-oriented rivals. There is also the City button on the dash, which makes it extremely light indeed. Useful for manoeuvering in tight spaces, perhaps, but I don’t think you would want to drive on the open road in this mode, as there is just no feel at all to what the steered wheels are doing. The handling is not exactly class leading, either. Whilst grip levels are good, there is a lot of body roll and the 500L understeers rather more than some of its rivals. The ride is generally good, with the soft suspension compensating somewhat for the lack of handling finesse. Pedal pressure on the brake was as expected, with no issues I could discern. There is a pull-up hand brake between the seats, but the lever itself it somewhat stylised with a rather awkward release button on the top surface. When you first sit in the 500L, you will notice that the windscreen is massive, and it is a long way away, as you find out when you reach up to adjust the rear-view mirror or to pull the sun visors down. Combine that with the slightly unusual double A pillar which makes almost of a wrap-around type screen, and you get a panoramic view of the road ahead, even around bends. There’s plenty of glass with a wrap around rear window and a largely vertical rear-end so judging the back of the Fiat was easy, meaning that the car was not hard to position in confined spaces or to park up.
Open the door and look inside and the reference to the smaller 500 continues with the use, in this version, of a large body-coloured plastic inlay across the dash. That’s about the only nod there is to the 500L’s smaller relative, though you will recognise a few other components from the Fiat parts bin and a number of what Fiat call “squircles”, squared-off circles, as used in the Panda. There is quite a large instrument cluster, all under a single cowl. The two larger dials, for speed and revs have a large white outer ring to the black centre. Smaller fuel level and water temperature gauges occupy the upper part of the space between the two, and below this is a digital display area which uses what you will probably think of as rather old-fashioned looking orange dot matrix style graphics. You cycle through the various data options by pressing the button on the end of the right hand column stalk. There are two column stalks, with lights operated by twisting the end of the left hand one. There is a leather wrapped wheel which was pleasant to hold, and the central boss contains the buttons for the cruise control and audio repeaters. There is a relatively small 5″ touch screen in the centre of the dash for the uConnect system, which groups together audio functions including a DAB radio with other features the extent of which depends on the trim option of the model you have. That did not extend as far as navigation in the test car. The uConnect system is generally seen as an improvement on Fiat’s long-running Blue & Me system, and it is easy to operate, with most of the functions selected from the touch screen, though there are two knobs and a row of buttons under the unit. The responsiveness of the system is good and the graphics are clear, though it could all usefully be a bit bigger. Lower than this are three simple rotary dials for the air conditioning. And that is it, all pleasingly simple and unfussy.
The seats of the test car were covered in a hard-wearing cloth which was a mix of predominantly black with large areas of contrasting red cloth around the perimeter. Whilst this certainly adds colour to the interior, I was not totally convinced that this combination with the white area of the dash was the best of combinations. Seat adjustment is manual, with a bar under the seats for fore/aft movement. There is a height adjuster only for the driver’s seat. Even with the seat set as low as it would go, you still seem to be sitting high up, perhaps higher than you would instinctively choose, though not entirely at odds with the Crossover nature of the 500L. The seat itself proved comfortable, and with a large glass area and that massive windscreen in front of you, there was a real feeling of space and airiness, something that is often lacking in modern cars.
Those in the rear sit up quite high, too, but with the taller body of the car’s styling, there is still more than enough headroom. The 500L is wide enough to be able to seat three adults across the car. The seats are on sliders, so you can vary the amount of leg room in exchange for the loss of a little luggage capacity. Whilst you will have to wind the rear windows down manually in this PopStar trim, there are plenty of other features which illustrate the practical nature of this car, with bins on the doors, a recess in the end of the centre console shaped to take a bottle or large coffee cup and some useful stowage holders on the back of the front seats. There is a good sized boot, regular in shape and quite deep under the parcel shelf. Every 500L features Fiat’s Cargo Magic Space, which includes a three-level rear cargo floor panel, fold-flat front passenger seat as well as rear seating that can recline for passenger comfort, slide for/aft to reprioritise cargo and passenger volume, and fold and tumble forward to store the second row seating and maximise interior cargo volume. With the rear seats folded down. there is a nice flat floor all the way from the tailgate, something you don’t always get in modern cars and the fact that you have tipped the seats up means that there is protection against the back of the front seats, also something you don’t find that often these days. There are a couple of stowage nets in the side of the boot. Inside the cabin there is a split-level glovebox, an open tray in front of the passenger on the dashboard, bins on the doors, and a cubby in front of the gearlever, so there are plenty of places for odds and ends, 22 of them apparently, probably even more important in a family car than is usually the case.
When the 500L was first launched, it was offered in three trims: PopStar, Easy and Lounge, with an array of personalisation options much as they are on the smaller 500. Since then the Trekking version was added, which has vaguely faux off-roader ambitions and then the Beats edition joined the range in February 2014, at which point a new 1.6 M-Jet diesel engine and a more powerful 1.4 MultiAir petrol were also made available, both offering 120 bhp. Somewhat unusually, the PopStar and the Easy were offered at the same price. They had different features included in their standard spec. All models of the 500L come with quite a long standard equipment list featuring a 5-inch touchscreen Uconnect with radio and Bluetooth, six airbags, ESP stability programme, body-coloured electric door mirrors, cruise control, leather gearknob and steering wheel. The Pop Star features a body-coloured dashboard, alloy wheels and side door mouldings to appeal to a cool, young audience, while Easy gets rear parking sensors, a soft-touch dashboard and electric rear windows in addition to the standard equipment, to attract drivers looking for greater comfort. The top-of-the-range Lounge model is loaded with even more features, adding to the standard list: climate control air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, side mouldings, rear parking sensors, electric rear windows, a largest-in-class fixed glass roof, light sensor, rain sensor, front fog lamps and a rear armrest. The Trekking version joined the range in July 2013. It features different front and rear styling details, a higher ride height, mud and snow tyres and Traction+, which allows the car to tackle mild off-roading as well. It uses the same set of engines as the regular 500L Based around the Fiat 500L Trekking, the 500L Beats Edition, produced in conjunction with artist and record producer Dr Dre, also features the Trekking’s revised suspension, Mud and Snow tyres, City Brake Control and Traction+ traction control system as standard. Additional features, also standard on the Trekking, include rear electric windows, front fog lights, a touchscreen Uconnect infotainment system, automatic headlights, rain sensors and rear privacy glass. The interior of the 500L Beats Edition gets automatic dual-zone climate control as standard, as well as a matte-grey dashboard panel and a Total Black interior pack which includes special black fabric/eco-leather seat upholstery complete with red, embroidered ‘500’ logos on the front backrests. A premium BeatsAudio system is also standard. Fiat also introduced two new option packs. The Premium Pack offers £1720-worth of luxury equipment for just £1300: full beige or grey leather upholstery; a ParkView rear parking camera and a five-inch touchscreen Uconnect system with DAB and satellite navigation are all included in the pack, which is offered on the Lounge model only. In addition, a Living Pack, comprised of heated front seats, height adjustable front seats, driver- and passenger-seat adjustable lumbar support and a front arm rest, can be combined with the Premium Pack for an additional £450, a saving of £125 versus the standard combined price of these options. All versions come with the choice of body colour, white or black roof, and the option of silver, white or black alloy wheels, meaning customisation opportunities are huge. A 1.5 square metre glass roof (standard on Lounge) is also available for enhanced cabin ambience and panoramic passenger visibility.
I handed this 500L back to the dealer with somewhat mixed feelings about the car. If you think that as a Fiat it is going to be fun to drive, you are almost certainly going to be disappointed, as even with a bit more power than was on offer with this entry level model, the dynamic limitations of the steering and handling mean that this is not really a car to drive for the sake of it. But view it as practical and roomy family transport with an injection of style that looks a bit different from a sea of identikit-looking rivals and the 500L has plenty to commend it. As well as an NCAP 5-Star rating, if you pick the right engine (which is not the one I had in my test car), you will get excellent economy and the options list allows you to personalise your car. Sales have been particularly strong in Italy, where the model has regularly gained a podium place in the sales charts (though it has never outsold the Panda) and it has found favour over the rest of Europe, too. It is a reasonably common sighting even on British roads and having had my second experience of the model, it is not hard to see why. Certainly one to try rather than to dismiss just because of some rather luke-warm reviews that were published a while back.