The Fiat 500L is designed to blend the style of the Fiat 500 with the practicality of a small MPV. It has five seats and is almost 4.2 metres long – somewhere between a Ford Fiesta and a Ford Focus.
It's a hugely important model for Fiat, as it attempts to expand the '500' brand.
A seven-seat version of the 500L will arrive later this year and a mini-SUV, called the 500X, is expected to appear before the end of 2014.
The 500L is offered with four engines. The entry-level model is a 94bhp 1.4-litre petrol, while there's also an 84bhp 1.3-litre diesel.
Here, though, we're testing the 500L Twinair – a 0.9-litre two-cylinder petrol engine with 104bhp – and the 1.6 diesel model, which offers similar power, but more torque.
What’s the 2013 Fiat 500L like to drive?
The 500L diesel (powered by the latest 1.6 Multijet engine) can reach 62mph from rest in 11.3 seconds and has a top speed of 113mph. The engine's best work is achieved between 1750rpm and 2500rpm – there's no point revving it past 3500rpm because acceleration tails off dramatically after that.
The petrol-powered 500L Twinair is slightly slower than the 1.6 diesel, but while its Government fuel economy figure is also worse, its CO2 emissions are slightly better. This is almost certainly attributable to a selectable 'Eco' setting, which limits power in return for improved economy around town. However, our experience with the Twinair engine in other Fiats tells us that real-world fuel efficiency is likely to disappoint.
Ride comfort is crucial in a car that's designed to carry families and the 500L performs reasonably well on this front. The ride is more controlled than the regular 500’s, so the car doesn’t crash over bumps and potholes in quite the same way.
The suspension is a touch firm, which makes the car a little fidgety, but things rarely get uncomfortable. A word of warning, though – avoid the optional 17-inch alloy wheels because they completely destroy ride quality.
You’ll feel a fair amount of body lean in bends, but considering the 500L’s tall body and narrow footprint, any lurches are quite well contained.
The steering isn’t so impressive, though. It feels light, artificially weighted and returns to centre too aggressively.
What’s the 2013 Fiat 500L like inside?
If you're expecting the 500L's dashboard to ooze retro charm like the regular 500's, you'll be disappointed. In this area, at least, the 500L sticks to the ultra-practical layout of the Panda, which means function takes precedence over style. However, given that the 500L is designed primarily as a family car, perhaps that's no bad thing.
There's certainly no shortage of storage bins around the cabin, including an upper and lower glovebox. The materials (particularly those in your direct line of sight) do have a more premium look than the Panda's, but perhaps that's not surprising given the 500L's higher price.
The dashboard layout is easy to use, with simple rotary controls for the heating and ventilation, and a large touch-screen infotainment system, which is mounted high on the centre console – so you don't have to glance too far from the road to see it.
The view out is sensational – thanks in no small part to windscreen pillars that have inset windows.
There's plenty of legroom for rear passengers, and although the rear seats are set higher than those in the front to give passengers a good view out, there’s still plenty of headroom – unless your 500L has the full-length sunroof (optional on Pop Star and Easy trims; standard on Lounge models). This eats into rear headroom significantly, and six-footers might find themselves having to slouch.
The rear seats slide forwards and backwards, depending on whether you want to prioritise rear legroom or boot space. With the seats fully back, there's 343 litres of luggage space; slide them fully forwards and that capacity increases to 400 litres.
What’s more, the adjustable boot floor has three settings that come in extremely handy when you want to separate delicate items from bulkier cargo. For example, you can stow your pushchair beneath the floor, and your grocery bags on top of it.
The adjustable floor also helps level out the load area when you fold down the 60/40 split rear seats, and the folding front passenger seat (the backrest tips forward onto its base) allows you to take long loads such as flat-pack furniture.
For maximum capacity, you can tumble forward the folded back seats, which gives you a flat cargo space of 1310 litres.
The 500L's cabin is practical enough, then, although one of the Fiat’s main rivals, the Citroen C3 Picasso, offers almost 200 litres more boot space with the rear seats folded down.
Should I buy one?
The 500L is an interesting option for small families who want something different from a regular five-door hatchback. It also comes pretty well equipped, with Bluetooth, air-conditioning, cruise control and a touch-screen infotainment system standard across the range.
However, it's not cheap. The entry-level petrol costs £2000 more than the cheapest C3 Picasso, while the range-topping 1.6-litre diesel version of the 500L costs £1200 more than the equivalent Citroen. That's before discounts, too, and Citroen dealers are bound to be more generous on that score.
If, on the other hand, you're cross-shopping the 500L with a Kia Ceed, you can get the 126bhp diesel version of the Kia for almost £2500 less than the equivalent Fiat.
Of course, Fiat will argue that the Picasso lacks the character and charm of its own offering, and that the 500L offers scope for personalisation that you won't find in a Kia Ceed, Ford Focus or VW Golf. Those are valid points, but you'll need to be particularly convinced by them to justify spending the extra cash.
What Car? says...
Citroen C3 Picasso
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