ROAD TEST: Fiat 500 L 1.4 Lounge
“How could this possibly be a Fiat 500?”
If there's one question the 500L gets asked all too often, it's that.
Technically it's hardly as much a Fiat 500 as the Mini Countryman is a Mini. While the 500L's design was evidently influenced by the modern 500 hatch, it is clearly a bigger vehicle, based on the Punto platform but stretched 70mm longer and towering further towards the sky. But why?
There is a lot of method to Fiat's madness if you think about it. Your young, trendy, up-and-coming urbanite that buys the 500 hatch is eventually going to ‘grow up’, get married and bolster the world's population.
The Fiat 500L, then, is for those that want some 500 personality in a school run wrapping. In many ways it does what its ancestor, the 600 Multipla, did back in 1956.
I suspect most of its target market won't find the L's design quite as 'cuddly' as that of the smaller hatch, but it still looks rather unique on the street.
But let's get to the real reason you might be considering the Jumbo Cinquecento!
SPACE AND STYLE
According to Fiat, the 500L is the first 500 family member that can “contain the small pleasures and life's greatest emotions all together: children, friends, journeys, music and community.”
To that end, its cab-forward MPV-like design has manifested a roomy cabin with ample space for five adults and their luggage. There's ample legroom and headroom for all five inmates and the boot holds between 343 and 400 litres, depending on how you slide the rear seat bench. There's also a luggage compartment solution that allows you to separate heavy and fragile items in three levels and a 'Fold&Tumble' action for the rear seats that allows you to configure a flat, 1310-litre loading space.
The cabin has an elegant feel to it too, as the textures and materials feel of a high quality, certainly higher than you'd get in your run-of-the-mill compact MPV.
Entertainment is provided by Fiat's new UConnect multimedia system that, through a five-inch touchscreen, acts as a central hub for your media players and smartphone. It also offers some snazzy modern functions like reading your text messages to you and the ability to audio stream or connect you to certain apps through your phone.
The refined feel continues at speed, where the supple ride quality and meticulous NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) suppression create a tranquil experience. Just make sure that you're never in a hurry.
This 500L's weakest link, in my view, is the 1.4-litre petrol engine fitted to the two most attainable models. There's no turbocharger here, just a simple normally-aspirated 16-valve motor producing a meagre 70kW and 127Nm.
Combine this with the 500L's relatively heavy body and you have a car that's just not cut out for the open road. After having put the little tyke through a 700km highway journey, I'm convinced that this is one of the most sluggish cars I've ever driven. It seriously runs out of breath on the uphills, even if you do change down as far as third, and overtaking manoeuvres need to be very precisely calculated. Even town driving requires a bit of pedal-to-the-metal at times, although leisurely drivers who stick to the city could find that the 500L suits their needs just fine.
The alternative, for those in more of a hurry, is the 77kW/320Nm 1.6-litre turbodiesel version, if you can stretch your budget to R299 490.
Which brings us to the other off-putting thing about the 500L. Even the 1.4-litre petrol versions are expensive, at R242 490 for the 'Easy' and R257 990 for the 'Lounge' featured here. It's a classy, well-equipped and rather unique little runabout, the 500L, but for similar money you can get far more bang for your buck by opting for an Opel Meriva 1.4T.
Fiat 500 L 1.4 Lounge
Engine: 1.4-litre, four-cylinder petrol
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
Power: 70kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 127Nm @ 4500rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 12.8 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 170km/h
Consumption (claimed): 6.2 litres per 100km
Price: R257 990
Warranty: Three-year/100 000km
Maintenance Plan: Three-year/100 000km