First Drives

05 July 2012

Fiat 500 L: first drive

Can Fiat’s 500-badged ‘minivan’ maintain the charm of the original?

Vijay Pattni
Car image

So what's this all about then?

It's supposed to be the ‘grown up' sibling to the iconic Fiat 500; the car to transport funky young mums about town with their marauding offspring. Fiat would like you to think of it as a sort of minivan that marries the enduring styling of that tiny Italian icon with genuine space and functionality.

Hang on, doesn't Fiat already do something like that called a ‘Panda'?

Our thoughts turned to the Panda too when we first saw it. Then we saw it, proper. Up close. In the real world. Touched it and everything. And it's a lot bigger than that car. It measures at 4147mm long, 1784mm wide and 1665mm high, versus the Panda's 3538mm/1578mm/1540mm. See? Much bigger.

Yeah numbers schmumbers - how big is it really?

Tellingly, in one of Fiat's presentation slides, we were greeted with the sight of professional basketball players when we got talking about headroom. There's simply masses of space; six-footers could feasibly sit in the back wearing a top hat that the late, great Abraham Lincoln would call ‘tall'. The roof helps create an airy feel - if a little tortuous stuck under an Italian sun - there are literally a gazillion cubbyholes scattered around, and the boot is decent.

That height, surely it makes the handling ‘interesting'?

We had a feeling you might ask that. Yes, it is very tall, and very tall things such as this don't normally like being hustled around. The 500 L is no exception here, sadly. It sits on a modified version of the Fiat Punto's platform - not the 500's - albeit a touch longer and wider. Fiat has gone to great lengths to minimise the body roll, but it is a difficult task. It doesn't exactly wallow around, but it feels a touch... slow. Vigorous changes of direction elicit noticeable gyration.

Oh dear.

It's not all bad news, mind. The steering - though a bit woolly - feels perfectly suited for city and motorway schlepping, and it's been engineered so at top dead centre there's a touch of play so you avoid having to make constant corrections. That alone should tell you everything. Anyway, you're not going to set 'Ring lap times in one of these anyway. It also offers some 333 personalisation options, and the sound system was even engineered by that fabled hip-hoppist Dr Dre and his new ‘Beats' setup. Plus, the interior, though more Panda-ish than 500, is a lovely place to sit, complete with a marvellous little 5in touchscreen.

Looks like Fiat has thrown everything at it but the coffee machine, then?

Erm, it's got one of those, too. Seriously. A coffee machine. How very Italian. Lavazza has created a portable espresso maker that slots into a deck in the passenger compartment. This is simply fantastic.

Why call it a 500 then?

Because Fiat has a long history of rebigulating its city cars, a history that stretches back to the 600 Multipla of 1955. It's a roomy, quirky and cheap-ish little MPV that, in our humble view, manages to transfer some of the 500's smiley charm into a bigger package. Throw in that characterful little TwinAir engine and you've got a nice package. Best not mention the other Multipla, mind.

I can sense a but, coming...

Yes, the Ford B-Max. That car is coming soon, and we suspect it could be a better contender. Still, when it arrives, the 500L is definitely worth considering.

Tags: fiat, 500l



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