Fiat 500L TwinAir - First Drive

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The cunning plan? Build it quite big but align it to the company’s best-loved small car in the hope that some of the magic will rub off

Engine: 875cc two-cylinder in-line turbocharged TwinAir with MultiAir valvegear
Transmission: six-speed manual
Power: 105PS at 5,500rpm (98 at 5,750rpm in fuel-saving ECO mode)
Torque: 145Nm at 2,000rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 4.8 litres per 100 km (approx. 58.9mpg)
CO2 emissions: 112g/km, meets strictest EURO 6 standard
Top speed: 112 mph (180 km/h)
Acceleration (0-62 mph): 12.3 seconds
Price: UK pricing not yet decided, initial guidance suggests £14,000 upwards
On sale in the UK: 2013

Fiat is famously an awful lot better at small cars than it is at big ones; the 500L probably represents its cleverest attempt yet at correcting the problem.

The Italians’ cunning plan? Build a vehicle that’s quite big but give it the name and many of the outward characteristics of the company’s best-loved small car in the hope that some of the magic will rub off. That’s why Fiat’s practical new roomy upright compact is called the 500L, rather than, say, Multipla or 600, names that would probably be more consistent with the company’s previous naming policies. Will it work? It’s too early to be certain, but I the omens are good. BMW has already set a successful precedent with the big five-door Mini Countryman, and an early taste of the 500L in Fiat’s home city, Turin, revealed a car that shares at least some of the 500’s charm, but adds quite a few plus points to the mix.

The first thing to say is that while the 500L is clearly intended to trade on the popularity of the standard 500, its exterior styling really only strongly follows that of the smaller car at the front; in platform terms, it is based on the larger Punto and there are several visual reminders of another popular Fiat, the Panda, in the design of the glazed rear pillars and the “squircle” shape of the wheel arches and the steering wheel boss. Overall, the family resemblance between the standard 500 and the 500 L is quite a bit less marked than that between the BMW Mini and the Countryman. That’s not necessarily a bad thing - the Mini shape doesn’t really translate particularly well to the larger Countryman format, whereas the 500 L has a friendly, appealing look of its own.

Three engine options are available, one diesel and two petrol. The diesel is Fiat’s well-regarded 1.3-litre MultiJet, and here it turns out 85 horsepower. The two petrols are a 1.4-litre four and a 0.9-litre two-cylinder TwinAir. Thanks to turbocharging, it’s the smaller petrol engine that is the more powerful – it produces 105 horsepower to the four’s 95. The TwinAir played an important part in establishing the distinctive character of the existing 500, so its use in the 500L was probably inevitable. The main difference is that Fiat has boosted the power of the TwinAir here from its usual 85 horsepower to 105. On the road, it’s just as characterful as it is in other applications but feels, perhaps, a little more refined. In performance terms, the extra power is offset by the new car’s greater size and weight but Fiat fans are probably already hoping that the 105 horsepower version will make it into some of the other cars that use this engine – not least the standard three-door 500.

Our test route was quite short, covering mainly urban streets in Turin and local motorways, so a detailed assessment of the finer points of the 500L’s dynamic qualities will have to wait. But in any case, I suspect that open road performance and cornering prowess are going to be a lot less important to this car’s potential customers than its many practical virtues. These include a big roomy interior that successfully blends design elements from the 500’s and Panda’s cabins to produce a very attractive environment indeed. The 500L is particularly big on storage, with lots of handy cubby holes dotted around all over the place and a “double-decker” arrangement of shelves for the luggage space. So-called “Fold&Tumble” seats produce a flat load surface when they are lowered.

Like the standard 500 and other cars that are aimed at style-conscious customers, such as the Mini, Citroën DS3 and Range Rover Evoque, the 500L also provies a very wide range of personalisation options, with two-tone paint jobs offering particular scope to produce a dramatic look. The new car can also be ordered with an enormous panoramic glass roof; with its surface area of 1.5 square metres, Fiat reckons it’s probably the largest on the market and it certainly makes a big difference to the feeling of light and airiness in the interior. A multimedia system, UConnect, gives smart-phone integration and a five-inch screen but there’s one optional extra which I suspect will generate more column inches of coverage than any other feature of the 500L’s design; a Lavazza in-car coffee- maker that will help make Torinese traffic jams – or those in any other city for that matter – just that bit more tolerable.

Built in a new factory in Serbia, the 500L won’t come to the UK until next year, by which time the engine line-up should have been expanded to include a 1.6-litre diesel. No official prices have yet been released but a starting point somewhere between £14,000 and £15,000 looks likely. I think it’s going to do well.

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