Motoring review: Fiat 500L 1.6 Multijet Pop Star

Can Fiat's classic 500 retain its charm as an MPV?

Price: £17,490 (range spans £14,990-£18,890)
Engine: Electric, 87bhp
Transmission: 1,598cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 105bhp
Performance: 112mph, 0-62 in 11.3 seconds, 62.8mpg official average, CO2 117g/km

A wave of ennui passes over me every time I see a Mini Countryman. This galumphing mutant is demonstrably a charlatan and a travesty of everything a Mini – by definition a small car – should stand for. That, however, does not stop hordes of people buying them.

These buyers are not automotive purists with a sense of history. They simply want a reasonably roomy car with a high driving position and a bit of fun in its image.

So you can see why Fiat now wants to pull the same trick with the new 500L. The regular 500 is far and away Fiat's most successful car in decades, reinterpreting a landmark original every bit as skilful as the 2001 Mini remake. The 500 has a very recognisable shape and equally recognisable detailing, outside and in. But it lends itself even less well than the Mini to significant upsizing. Hence this confused creature.

Fiat is desperate to capitalise on the 500's success, and to keep owners loyal to the brand when they decide they need a bigger car to accommodate expanding families. There is a TV ad showing a 500 morphing into a 500L as it "goes large". But, with visual common ground nowhere except the badge on the nose, linking the small Fiat with this larger one is an imaginative stretch too far. Not even the 500's round wheel arches have been reprised here.

Fiat tells us that the 500L is longer than a Punto and as wide as a Bravo. It boasts of largeness in a car nominally rooted in smallness; let's not forget that the original 500s of the last century had engines of just 500cc or thereabouts. So the name is a nonsense. What about the car itself?

Well, it's a compact MPV, a rival for the similarly priced Ford B-Max or the cheaper Citroën C3 Picasso. The rear seats can slide, fold down or flip forward out of the way in best MPV fashion, and the front passenger seat can also be folded flat to complete an extra-long load bay. The false boot floor can be set at various levels, while the dashboard contains a Uconnect "infotainment" system. Options include a Beats Audio stereo system developed by a music producer called Dr Dre, and – yes – a built-in Lavazza coffee machine. Depending on the model, the dashboard can be painted in the main body colour, given a soft-touch surface or finished in suede.

As for engines, you can have a 105bhp version of the 875cc, two-cylinder, turbocharged unit found in the 500, a 95bhp four-cylinder engine, or 1.3- or 1.6-litre turbodiesels. The last of these, with 105bhp, powered the 500L I tried. Thus propelled, the 500L feels lively enough if not particularly quiet, and the six-speed gearbox is light and easy to use. It rides over bumps with an underlying firmness which never proves uncomfortable, and which helps keep this quite lofty car level when taking fast bends.

This is all very satisfactory, if some way removed from a proper 500's small-car nimbleness, but it offers no credible feel of the road through its electric power steering, just a springy resistance. As for the view of the road, the forward pillars are distracting.

So that's the Fiat 500L. Acceptable compact MPV? Yes. Desirable style object like its smaller sibling? No.

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