The Fiat 500L aims to do what MINI has done with the Countryman – offer people who like the Fiat 500 something more suitable for the family – so has Fiat succeeded?
MINI has succeeded by producing the Countryman, a family-sized MINI, which you now see everywhere. Fiat wants a slice of the action with the 500L – a mini-MPV version of the Fiat 500. Does it work?
The styling of the Fiat 500 certainly has charm. The 500L has character, however we’re not sure that the same charm of the 500 has been successfully grown to larger proportions in the 500L.
The interior environment of the 500L is pleasant enough from a visual point of view. It’s also sufficiently spacious for the needs of a small family, with some added flexibility provided by sliding and folding rear seats and a boot floor with three different levels.
The powertrain of our test car was a 105hp 1.6-litre diesel engine mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, and of course the 500L is front-wheel drive.
The Fiat 500L is reasonably happy around town. It has a ride that absorbs bumps more happily than a typical MINI Countryman (however this is all dependent upon wheel sizes) and it has light steering. However it’s a relatively tall car with a narrow track, and this, combined with suspension than can be somewhat bouncy – and the steering that could be described as vague as well as light – doesn’t make for a stable, planted car through higher-speed bends. You’re also sat quite high, which is good for visibility, but less good if you want to feel as though you’re contributing to a low centre of gravity through corners.
From the cabin, thanks to the noise levels you’re certainly aware that the 500L has a diesel engine, especially under acceleration. And it’s a diesel engine that doesn’t provide a huge amount of acceleration, especially at motorway speeds.
We had a number of issues with the 500L experience from the driving seat. Firstly, the steering wheel has incredibly thick spokes, meaning that you can’t wrap your hands around the wheel where the spokes are. This resulted in the steering wheel having to be moved lower so the wheel could be gripped above the spokes, but that meant that the top of the steering wheel rim obscured the top of the instrument dials, including the speedo and the indicator lights.
Another interesting feature on the 500L is that we couldn’t find any way to set the rear windscreen wiper to run constantly (or even intermittently). Instead, we had to push the stalk, which results in lots of water being sprayed on the rear window, and a few swipes of the wiper blade. If you’re driving on a rainy motorway, the only way to see behind you is to constantly push the stalk, which gets very boring and results in lots of water being wasted. If there’s a way of doing this, we couldn’t figure it out. Even the front windscreen wiper has to be operated by twisting a control on the end of the stalk, rather than simply pushing the stalk up or down, as on most cars.
There’s also the cruise control that’s positioned behind the fat steering wheel spoke, so it’s completely impossible to see it.
So overall, the 500L interior is reasonably practical, but there’s a few improvements that could be made
The 500L 1.6 MultiJet 105hp has an official combined economy figure of 62.8mpg, with emissions of 117 g/km CO2. When driven carefully, 50mpg+ was possible, but our real-life economy after a week with the car was 48.1mpg. The car has a stop-start system, which helps to lower the official emissions, although there were two occasions when the car didn’t want to restart when setting off at traffic lights.
Our 1.6-litre diesel test car cost £18,890. It had options of 17-inch dark grey alloy wheels (£300); electric sunroof (£450) and city brake control (£250), bringing the total price to £20,390. That’s quite expensive for a mini-MPV.
There’s also a 1.3-litre diesel, a 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol, and the 0.9-litre, two-cylinder Twinair turbo engine. The 500L is best suited to urban rather than motorway driving, and so most buyers would probably be better off with a petrol engine – yes, even the two-cylinder, which would be more fun and responsive around town – although you would struggle to come close to the official fuel economy figure.
There are three trim levels – Pop Star, Easy and Lounge. Lounge spec comes with the large panoramic sunroof as on our test car.
You can now buy a 7-seat 500L, called the MPW. There’s also a 500L Trekking, which looks like it can drive across fields – but it’s not four-wheel drive.
The Fiat 500L offers a characterful mini-MPV that provides a reasonably comfortable driving experience around town. It can also provide decent levels of economy. However there are a number of issues with the ergonomics from the driving seat, and it isn’t happy doubling up as an occasional motorway car, when it doesn’t inspire confidence in higher speed corners, and it struggles with acceleration at motorway speeds. The Fiat 500L is therefore acceptable for certain uses, when it can be a relatively economical form of family transport, but it’s not a super-capable all-rounder – a role that a MINI Countryman does better. The 500L scores a Green-Car-Guide rating of 7 out of 10. We’d recommend going for a Fiat Panda if you can fit into it – and we would still describe the Fiat Panda 4×4 as the most capable city car in existence.