(Pocket-lint) - The Fiat 500 can justifiably claim to be an icon. Its unique blend of style, functionality and affordability has won it legions of admirers over the years.
But there's a catch. The original 500 was designed to navigate the back streets of 1950s Italy and its modern namesake isn't a great deal bigger. So what do you do if your lifestyle has outgrown a pint-sized city car?
In a bid to retain customers graduating from the regular 500 – and hopefully tempt a few new ones – Fiat introduced the 500L back in 2012. Freshly facelifted for 2018, it's a mini MPV based on a development of the Punto platform, but the company says the 500L embodies all the style and excitement of its little brother. Hmm.
Meet the MPV family
Before we get onto that there's a crossover-shaped elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. Multi-purpose vehicles (MPVs) used to be big business, but the last decade or so has seen buyers desert the segment in their millions, flocking instead to compact sports utility vehicles (SUVs). Fiat offers one itself – the Jeep Renegade-based 500X – so why persist with a traditional people carrier as well?
The simple answer is that MPVs still make a lot of sense. Fiat says the four-wheel drive variants only account for around 10 per cent of 500X sales. Believe it or not, that's actually quite good in this sector, but it confirms what we already knew: very few people have even the faintest intention of taking their crossovers off-road. Throw away the pretence of that capability and what you end up with is something a lot like the 500L.
In an attempt to plug the gap, there's even a pseudo-SUV version known as the 500L Cross. This is essentially a styling pack for the regular two-wheel drive model, but it does come with a 25mm increase in ride height, selectable drive modes for slippery conditions, and a set of chunky mud and snow tyres.
The final model in the range is the 500L Wagon. As the name implies, this is effectively an estate version, with an extra 228mm grafted onto the body to accommodate a third row of seats. At just 4.38 metres long – roughly the same as a Ford Focus hatchback – it's the most compact seven-seater on the market.
So what's new?
Marketing executives must lie awake at night dreaming of something with the branding potential of the original Fiat 500. Not surprisingly, then, there's been a concerted effort to maintain the family resemblance across its spinoffs.
Most of the external changes to the 500L are geared towards emphasising that association. The revised front bumper and grille now echo the regular 500's "moustache and badge" configuration, while a new set of LED daytime running lights and a smattering of extra chrome helps to give it a fresher look. It's not exactly the most daring of facelifts, but it does help to accentuate that likeness, which is inevitably going to prove one of the car's main selling points.
Ultimately, there's no hiding the fact that this is a much bigger car than the regular 500. It also has rather different proportions, which means it works better from some angles than from others. In the flesh, though, it does do a better job of capturing its namesake's cute persona than the photos might suggest.
Inside, the changes are more noticeable, but still fairly mild. Gone is the squared-off steering wheel of the previous 500L, replaced by a conventional round design. The centre section of the wheel has been shrunk to give a better view of the dials and there's now a 3.5-inch colour TFT screen integrated into the instrument cluster. That provides a useful amount of additional information, such as sat nav directions, as well as giving it a more contemporary look.
A number of tweaks have been made to improve the ergonomics. The heater controls have been raised to make them easier to reach, as has the gear lever (which is now a large cueball-style design). In general, it works very well. The drive mode selector on the Cross model remains a bit of a stretch, but everything else falls easily to hand.
What's it like inside?
The 500L's greatest strength is its interior. It feels bright and airy, with excellent visibility front and rear. The unusual see-through split A-pillar design also eliminates the blind spot that you would otherwise get.
You sit quite high up in the front, giving the 500L a bit of an SUV feel (particularly in Cross trim). The same is true in the back, where the raised seating position means your feet tend to dangle downwards rather than sticking out forwards. That's a lot more comfortable than it sounds and it results in excellent leg room for a car of this size. Combined with the low window line, the elevated seating position also gives a great view out – something that's sure to find favour with kids.
Head room is generally good too. The one caveat here is that the optional sunroof eats into it quite significantly. Unless you regularly transport a basketball team, however, it's an option that's well worth having for the extra light it provides.
As you'd hope, there's plenty of storage space. At 455 litres (493 litres in the Wagon) the 500L's boot is towards the larger end of the class. It comes with a false floor, which can be dropped down to increase the storage space or slid up to create a shelf (allowing you to stack delicate items without placing them on top of each other).
If you need more space, the rear seats fold completely flat at the touch of a button, giving a van-like 1,480 litre load bay (1,509 litres in the Wagon). The front passenger seat can also be folded down if required, helping to accommodate long items like step ladders.
Material quality is generally good, although it's certainly not perfect. The indicator stalks, for instance, feel flimsy and there are some scratchy plastics to be found. It should hold up well to the rigours of family life, though. There's also plenty of cabin storage for those trips away, including two separate gloveboxes.
Trim and tech
The Fiat 500L range kicks off with the Pop edition (available in both Urban and Wagon form). It covers the basics with six airbags, air conditioning, cruise control and a leather steering wheel. Infotainment is handled by a 5-inch touchscreen display with Bluetooth and Fiat's Uconnect system, which combines hands-free calling, voice activation and audio streaming.
The first thing you notice getting into the mid-range Lounge model is a step up in material quality, with upgraded seat upholstery and a nicer covering for the dashboard fascia. It also brings dual zone climate control, a fixed glass roof and that clever height-adjustable parcel shelf.
On the tech side, Lounge gives you a larger 7-inch HD touchscreen, with access to services like Deezer and TuneIn. It also marks the first time that the 500L has been available with Apple Car Play or Android Auto connectivity, but this is a £150 extra. The TomTom 3D navigation system is another optional extra – at £250 it's worth having, but it's not the fastest system, nor the most intuitive to use. Lounge spec also brings various bits of chrome trim, fog lights and rear parking sensors, plus automatic lights and wipers.
The 500L Cross effectively sits at the top of the model range. Only available in five-seater form, it features chunkier crossover styling, two-tone 17-inch alloy wheels and the drive mode selector, which has three settings. The idea is that you leave it in Normal for everyday driving. Traction+ helps the car to pull away on slippery surfaces and brakes the wheels individually to direct the torque to the wheel with the most grip at speeds of up to 18mph. Gravity Control, meanwhile, offers a hill descent system for slippery slopes. Neither of these will transform the 500L into a bona fide off-roader, but they may prove handy on the occasional festival campsite.
Mechanically, the 500L remains unchanged. That means there's a choice of two petrol engines (a naturally aspirated 1.4-litre unit producing 95bhp and a turbocharged version good for 120bhp) and two diesels (a 95bhp 1.3-litre and a 120bhp 1.6-litre).
Fiat's Dualogic robotised manual gearbox is available on the smaller diesel, but unless you have an extreme aversion to changing gear we wouldn't bother. The slick six-speed manual is a far more satisfying device.
We didn't have a chance to sample the entry level petrol, but the turbocharged 1.4-litre T-Jet felt a little underwhelming. The power delivery is linear and responsive, but it needs plenty of revs to get going, which seems rather out of character with the car's laidback persona. Although it's slower on paper (10.7 seconds to 60mph), the 120bhp diesel feels significantly more eager thanks to its torque advantage. It's also substantially more economical at a claimed 67.3mpg (in comparison to 42.2mpg for the 120bhp petrol).
What's it like to drive?
Realistically, you have to look at the 500L's dynamics in the context of an MPV. In that role, it acquits itself admirably. Body roll is pretty well contained, the ride is reasonable (if a touch firm at low speeds) and it feels fairly nimble, thanks to light steering and a turning circle that would shame a London taxi. It's also easy to place on the road, simple to park and tolerably refined.
But does it capture the spirit of the regular 500? The short answer is no. The steering, although relatively direct, is a bit rubbery and largely devoid of feel. Similarly, while there's no shortage of grip, the handling majors on safe and steady rather than fun and feisty. It's not the sort of car that would ever encourage you to take the long way back from work, but neither are its competitors.
The 500L Cross is worthy of a mention. Alongside the increased ground clearance and those all-terrain tyres it rides on slightly larger 17-inch alloys (in place of the regular 16s). Conventional wisdom dictates that this should have a detrimental impact on both the ride quality and the handling. However, the car seems to shrug off bumps and potholes a bit more effectively than the standard model with no noticeable change in precision. Throw in the chunky styling and it would be our pick of the bunch.
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Strip away the glossy veneer and the Fiat 500L is a traditional people carrier. It's built for transporting kids, dogs and all the other baggage that comes with family life. Dynamically it's competent, although not up to the standards of cars like the Ford B-Max.
Instead, the 500L focuses on practicality. It offers a lot of car for the money in a literal sense (particularly in the somewhat aesthetically-challenged Wagon form). Interior space is among the best in its class, equipment levels are good and the luggage capacity is all that most families will ever need.
The quirky styling seems to divide opinion, though. To our eyes, the 500L Cross in a suitably bright two-tone colour scheme does add a touch of fun factor to the MPV segment, but not everyone will be convinced. Nonetheless, if you fancy a family-sized Fiat 500, this is as close as you're going to get.
So why no higher score? Well, in 500L form the car just fails to capture the spirit of the regular fun and feisty 500.