Is the 500L the hit Fiat needs to boost sales?
FIAT IS IN BAD need of a big hit. Hmm. I seem to have written those words before, five years ago, just before the Italians launched the little 500, the sales of which pulled the company back from the financial abyss.
Now, though, while the abyss is not so deep and Fiat is not teetering on the edge of it, sales are falling in its European heartlands, and, with investment being reduced and factories being shut down, Turin needs a new sprinkling of the 500’s magic.
And the 500L is the car Fiat hopes will revive its European fortunes. Although it carries the 500 name it’s only distantly mechanically related to the chic city car. It’s a 4.15m-long MPV, styled to look closer to an SUV and with a huge cabin for stuffing your family into. When they said the L stands for “large”, they really weren’t kidding. The 500L towers over a tiny 500 hatch, and there’s enough space for a six-footer to do some genuine lounging in the back seats.
That the cabin also looks and feels of very high quality indicates that Fiat is still pushing well along the road to eradicating its old reputation for fragility, however difficult it may be to unstick that impression from Irish minds. All the interior surfaces have a pleasingly hefty yet silky feel, and, as long as you specify some of the brighter colour options, it feels like a warm, welcoming place to be.
Irish specs have yet to be decided (and a price of about €22,000 for the 1.3 MultiJet diesel model has still to be agreed), but there will be an awful lot of high-end optional extras, including a city safety self-braking setup, a 1.5m-long glass roof, a stereo designed by the hip-hop legend Dr Dre (ask your kids . . .) and even an in-car Lavazza espresso maker that slots into one of the cupholders.
Standard features include a 5in touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth connection for your phone and music player and an EcoDrive Live function that monitors your driving and admonishes you for being too profligate – and that Fiat claims, somewhat implausibly, can save you up to 1,200l of fuel over the life of the car.
The rear seats fold and tumble with a quick flick of a button, and the 400l boot has an adjustable floor that allows you to segregate the shopping from the peat briquettes, or perhaps the laundry from the wet dog.
Our test car has the 85bhp 1.3 MultiJet diesel, which has a 110g/km CO2 figure and better than 62mpg on average. But with only 200Nm of torque to haul around 1,300kg of 500 (and that’s an empty kerb weight) it struggles to do anything to excite.
It’s a decent engine, with good refinement but little verve, and a rubbery five-speed manual gearbox doesn’t help either. When the 500L arrives in Irish dealers at the end of the year a 105bhp 1.6l diesel should be available, and that will doubtless prove a better match. Petrolheads, if any remain in Ireland, might be enticed by the 105bhp two-cylinder 112g/km TwinAir engine.