Fiat is building on the success of its 500 city car and creating a range of vehicles that are meant to share the same cute looks, sense of fun and premium image. The 500L is the first derivative, offering more space for trendy new mums and dads who may have been driving a smaller 500 before needing more space.
It’s roughly the same size as other small MPVs such as the Ford B-Max, Vauxhall Meriva and Citroën C3 Picasso, although these all have more boot space with the seats up or down. The rivals are also £2,000 cheaper if you choose the entry-level petrol variant but there is little difference between 1.6-litre diesel versions ‒ apart from the Citroën, which is cheaper.
Fans of the smaller 500 are unlikely to be bowled over by the 500L’s styling. The bug-eyed headlights and curved bonnet might be similar but the overall look is podgy, as if the car has been made from marshmallow. Underneath, the car has nothing to do with the 500 but is based on a modified Punto, which makes for a spacious cabin.
In addition to the standard 500L, Fiat has released a Trekking version, which it claims has been adapted to allow for more off-road situations. It features chunkier bumpers, a more advanced traction control system and increased ground clearance, meaning that it rides 15mm higher than the 500L. The modifications should ensure that it grips better on loose gravel or icy roads, and is less likely to become damaged on very bumpy surfaces. It’s not designed for very muddy or rutted terrain, though, where only a proper off-roader will pull through.
Trim levels sound suitably trendy with the choice being Pop Star, Easy and Lounge, each offering increasing amounts of equipment. There are two petrol and two diesel engines. The seven-seat 500L MPW is also part of the range. This is not reviewed here.
Perched on the 500L driver’s seat, your view is bus-like, thanks to the high driving position and large windows. This is entirely in keeping with the car’s purpose of ferrying passengers around, providing great visibility ahead and over the roofs of conventional hatchbacks. Unfortunately, the giant, split A-pillars, either side of the windscreen, leave a blind spot on your left and right, into which pedestrians and cyclists can disappear.
The ride isn’t bad. The suspension cushions bumps well, although it doesn’t always absorb them, which can result in a bouncy but comfortable ride. This is a little more noticeable on the Trekking.
Pick the 1.6-litre diesel and you’ll have a car that’s perfectly suited to town. It’s almost like the engine is designed to cope with stop-start traffic, providing enough power at low revs to get the car moving relatively quickly, but without so much that it jerks the car forward. Keep your foot down and there’s plenty of shove to accelerate harder. When combined with the smooth manual gearbox and light steering, it’s easy to make steady, comfortable progress in town or on the motorway. A respectable fuel economy of more than 50mpg is achievable and the only issue is noise: the rattle from under the bonnet is enough to make you turn the stereo volume up.
The 1.3-litre diesel is reported to be quieter, but, with 20bhp less power, will feel notably less energetic. The 0.9-litre TwinAir engine is the pick of the petrol offerings but unlikely to come close to the claimed 55.4mpg fuel economy.
Get onto B-roads and you will find that the 500L is not so happy cornering at higher speeds, when you get the impression that the suspension, too, is formed of marshmallow. It does not provide enough vertical stability, so the Fiat rolls noticeably, something that rivals such as the Ford B-Max avoid much better.
Driving only tested the Trekking version on the road where the car’s standard mud and snow tyres generated a bit more tyre noise than the standard car. Its performance, especially the ride, on gravel and grass is generally well-regarded.
The interior is light, thanks to the giant windows, and bright, with colourful painted dashboard inserts on the basic Pop Star specification cars. More light can be added with a full-length glass roof (standard on Lounge spec). A standard touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard, which operates the radio and standard Bluetooth phone connection, works well.
Quality, however, is below the class standard: some plastics feel cheap and a few switches are poorly designed. When you flash your main beam lights, for example, it’s too easy to start indicating at the same time. Oddly, the higher specification trim gives the cabin a more downmarket feel than the painted dashboard inserts in the base-level cars.
In fact, there is little to encourage you to upgrade from the basic Pop Star-spec car, which comes with alloy wheels, air-conditioning, six airbags and two Isofix points, along with a five-star Euro NCAP rating. Pay to add the glass roof, rear headrests, rear parking sensors and City Brake automatic braking system, and it will still work out cheaper than the top-spec Lounge car. You might also find it hard to resist the espresso maker which, like sat nav, is optional across the range.
The Trekking version costs about £700 more than the Lounge specification thanks to its traction control system, larger 17in wheels and City Brake all being fitted as standard.
There is enough space and legroom in the back for three adults to sit in comfort. However, the seat cushions, especially in the front, are not deep enough for taller passengers, so do not support their legs particularly well.
Although luggage space is a little worse than rivals, the 500L does offer good flexibility. The rear seats can be folded down or curled up behind the front seats to create a large, flat loading area. The front passenger seat can also be folded forward, allowing large items to be laid the entire length of the car. The boot features an adjustable shelf, which is also useful, but the space will be quickly filled by a large baby buggy.
The one to buy
Fiat 500L 1.6 Multijet Pop Star
- 1598cc diesel, turbocharged, 4 cylinders
- 104bhp @ 3750rpm
- 236 lb ft @1750rpm
- 6-speed manual
- 0-62mph in 11.3sec
- Top speed:
- 62.8mpg (combined)
- Road tax band:
- L 4147mm, W 1784mm, H 1665mm
Fiat 500L rivals
Citroen C3 Picasso