UK correspondent Jamie Merrill gets to grips with Fiat's quirky new compact MPV, which is due in South Africa this September.
Little but quirky cars are big these days. There's the stylish Fiat 500, the ever-popular Mini and new on the scene is the Vauxhall Adam. That's not forgetting the VW Up! and the Citroen C1 Connection, which was designed by requests from the French firm's Facebook fans.
These cars are sold on the basis not of their performance or even practicality, but on their retro looks, the “lifestyle” they offer and the endless number of personal-customisation options available.
That's why, when Fiat launched a new advertising campaign for its 500 model this spring, it called it the “Fiat 500 Spring/Summer Collection” and the Italian super-mini was described not as a great little runaround but as “this season's latest fashion accessory”.
This is all fine as a method for shifting cars but does it hold true when these cars get that little bit larger?
The Mini Countryman hardly relates to its tiny heritage, does it?
IN A FAMILY WAY
And now there's the new Fiat 500L. The “L” is an engorged version of the standard car that has headed back to the factory for a dose of steroids and come out as a family car, not a sleek runaround.
The idea is that there's enough of the old chic styling of the original model to keep us interested.
And to make sure we know the “L” is as cool as the standard 500, the Italian firm has released a 2013 must for aspiring car companies - a viral ad. It's of an attractive mother next door rapping about the joys of parenthood next to her new Fiat 500L (you know the one - your friend with a new baby probably sent you the link on Facebook). With lines such as she's “a school-run taker, fairy cake baker, deal maker… rattle shaker, cheese grater, night-time waker and organism faker”, it's pretty funny and quickly went viral. That doesn't mean the new “L” is any good though.
Don't get me wrong; there's nothing spectacularly wrong with the new car. It's based on the Punto platform and is part of Fiat's plan to extend its brand around the very popular “500 family”. The hope is that those of you who have bought the standard car will get down to it with your partner, create some kids and rush to upgrade to the larger model.
And the family-planning unit at Fiat's HQ in Turin must be hoping for a baby boom as there's even a 500L MPW with seven seats on the horizon.
Inside it's full of tough plastics that give a robust and durable feel (otherwise known as toddler-proof), but they are quirky and colourful so the 500L avoids feeling cheap and nasty.
From the outside, though, it's a different matter. Over the course of a week I canvassed opinion with a dozen friends in their late-twenties and early-thirties - all within the soon-to-have children demographic, whether they like it or not - and none of them thought the car had retained the charm of the original, or even the recent brand reboot.
It's just too ungainly and, well, rather ugly. There's none of the charm of its inspiring super-mini grandfather. It doesn't drive or handle as well as many of its rivals either.
Should that matter though? It's an affordable, robust and practical family car with plenty of clever little storage spaces and a vast boot. The diesel engine (not coming to SA initially) is a peach too, offering just enough grunt on the motorway but eminently respectable economy and emissions standard (important for wallet-watching parents).
Watch this space for more info on the South African range when it’s launched in two months from now. -The Independent