The Fiat 500L is not a 500. The 500 is miniscule, it’s funky, it packs retro styling and carries with it nostalgia for the older Fiat fans, and a cute factor for the younger generation of car buyers. The Fiat 500L is none of the above. ‘500L’ is supposed to stand for ‘500 Large’, but the 500L really isn’t a 500, what it is, is large, very large.
The 500L is comically large, and with its bubbled styling, it dwarfs the standard 16-inch alloys, much like a bodybuilder would a child’s tricycle. Not only is it a rather huge piece of glass and metal, rivalling the Mini Countryman in size, but the 500L is a mash-up of styling, neither definitively here or there. It fuses elements of 500 with bits of Panda and then some. It’s also an awkward ratio of glass to metal, with a massive glass roof, and a 3-piece glass windscreen that finds the side-mirrors located on what essentially become the B-pillars due to the windshield splits.
So what is it about the 500L that I find so fantastic? It’s totally un-Fiat, that’s what. Perhaps the greatest compliment to the Fiat 500L is that it’s nothing like any Fiat I’ve experienced before. Once you get beyond the awkward styling, the fact that you have to look nearly sideways to look in your mirrors, and the somewhat awkward seating position and seats that offer almost no support, the 500L puts forward a rather decent offering, and one of the most solidly built Fiats I’ve seen in years.
In the top of the range 500L Lounge on test, the interior finish was rather great, with grey suede dash cladding and two-tone grey upholstery. Everything was rather well put together too, with no audible rattles and squeaks. Standard equipment was also rather generous, including cruise control, air-conditioning, one-touch up and down function on all windows, and hill-hold assist. Also standard was the UConnect 5-inch touch screen audio system, with integrated Bluetooth Audio streaming, USB and auxiliary inputs, and cellphone connectivity, which worked rather flawlessly, barring the inability to connect a phone as a media source and phone simultaneously.
The drive was equally solid, with a highly refined ride quality and cabin insulation that repelled undulations and road noise with a quiet grace. But the awkward seating position and seemingly huge dimensions of the 500L made for a somewhat stressful experience when roads weren’t the widest and lacked an emergency lane. The large, 3-pane windscreen, although adding forward visibility, made the 500L seem wider than it was, and the side-mirrors being awkwardly out of place meant that quick glances at the mirrors required far more distraction from the road ahead.
Narrow roads at cruising speed were also a little uncomfortable to negotiate with the somewhat numb steering feel afforded by the 500L’s electronically assisted power steering – although city mode made tight parking lots a rather simple affair, and low-speed intercity travels were a breeze. Attempting to aid inner-city fuel economy, the 500L was equipped with auto stop/start technology, which true to the Italian car maker’s curse, was rather horrid, often not working at all, and when it did work, would be erratic and completely unhelpful, failing to restart when needed, and starting when not needed at all.
Thankfully the mechanical aspects of the 500L were rather sound, and despite the long clutch and short bite when taking off in 1st gear, the 6-speed manual worked rather well, the short gears enabling the utilisation of the diesel-torque to get the 500L up to cruising speed rather rapidly, and the in-gear torque made overtaking a simple affair. The punchy 1.6-litre diesel engine proved to be frugal too, sipping just 6l/100km on our test run.
The 500L, despite its flaws and odd packaging had proved to be a rather friendly car, with the vast standard kit a great pleasure to deal with on a day to day basis. The glass roof was particularly nifty, giving an airy feel to the cabin and providing passengers some lesser-known scenery when trapped in the car for long journeys. Passengers were also made to feel comfortable thanks to the sliding and reclining rear seats, with masses of legroom and tabletops mounted behind the front seats. The front seats were also able to fold flat forward, allowing rear passengers to recline and rest their feet on the seat ahead of them, with a wide, open view of the scenery around and above them.
But despite the solid build quality, lavish equipment list, frugal yet potent engine, and overall comfortable drive, the 500L is an awkward proposition. Sure, it’s got many endearing qualities, and you learn to love it more each day, but for those who love the nostalgia and cute-factor of the 500, yet need more space as they now have 2 screaming kids to stuff in the back, the 500 doesn’t quite bear that same attractiveness. Although it may fight strongly against the likes of the Renault Scenic, it belies its title as a ‘Large 500’, and it just seems rather discomfited as a package. If you want a mommy-wagon with extensive kit and a fresh take on the daily commute, the 500L is a decent proposition and a great bit of machine from Fiat, but if you want a 500 with a bit more space, buy a Panda.
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77kW @ 3750RPM
320Nm @ 1750RPM
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Author: Roger Biermann