16:21 Thursday 05 December 2013

REVIEW: A new take on an old motoring icon, but is it fit for family life?

Written byGARETH BUTTERFIELD

WE’VE seen this all before. A motoring icon gets dragged, kicking and screaming, from its place in the history books to be reborn and sculpted into a ‘retro’ model paying homage to the legendary lines of the original.

It worked for the Brits with the Mini and then it worked again for the Italians with the Fiat 500.

What followed on from this successful renaissance, in terms of the BMW-owned Mini brand, was an expansion of the marque to see the original concept stretched way beyond its initial limitations to spawn a string of other models, all losely based on the current Mini platform.

Riding on the success of the first generation ‘new Mini’ bosses created a range of spin-offs. Some worked, some were a bit of a flop, but ultimately we all watched as the family grew and grew.

Fiat has obviously been keeping an eye on this expansion because it’s now produced a bigger, more practical version of its oh-so-cute Fiat 500 supermini.

It’s called the 500L (I think the L stands for ‘living’ rather than ‘long’) and if I’m being honest I can see a lot less of the original 500 in its design than I can of the original mini in the Clubman and Countryman.

There are plenty of held-over details if you’re looking for them but, unlike with the bloated Minis that are an obvious exercise in stretching and bolting on the odd extra door, the Fiat 500L has had a major work-over.

One of the last attempts Fiat made at a properly well-designed people carrier gave the motoring world the Fiat Multipla. Although the cleverness of its design will go down in history visually, it was an abomination. I’d imagine the directors at Fiat were keeping a very close eye on the clay models when this car was being sculpted.

Given that it’s probably trickier to enlarge an existing design than it is to start off with a blank canvas, I think they’ve done a good job.

From the exterior its origins are obvious and the historic design has swallowed up the extra height and length very well.

Inside the 500L builds on its smaller sibling’s light, airy feel and adds bags of extra space to cater well for families.

Decent quality materials add in to the mix of new design features and everything about the interior feels ‘chunky’.

The steering wheel has a very thick rim, the gear knob is enormous and even the handbrake lever is among the biggest in the business.

The buttons and switches follow on from this theme and it all adds up to a very simple, user-friendly experience.

Visibility is wonderful with twin windscreen pillars and huge side windows letting in plenty of light but - as was the case with the Fiat Multipla, there’s no feeling of vulnerability from the drivers’ seat. In fact, the 500L is one of the safest cars in its class.

The practicality on offer is also top of its game, with a flat floor in the rear and plenty of legroom marrying up with a 400 litre boot.

The boot space, incidentally, can be fiddled with by way of a compartment system which, when removed, will give even more space and, when left in, will provide a place to tuck away all the family essentials you’d rather keep away from prying eyes.

Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking this is a big car. Clever packaging and a high roof is what has opened up the interior to make it feel so spacious. In reality, the 500L is only 8cm longer than a Fiat Punto.

As a result it’s a doddle to manouvre - especially when you take into account its light weight controls.

The 500L is available in three trim levels: Pop Star, Easy and Lounge. Standard specification is good but there’s plenty of add-ons available across the range - chiefly among the ‘personalisation’ options. You could even choose an on-board coffee maker if you fancy it. I kid you not.

There are four engines to choose from, two petrol engines including the weird and wonderful 875cc TwinAir alongside two turbo diesels. Manual and automatic gearboxes can also be specified.

On the road, the 500L behaves as well as can be expected. Truth be told, it rolls a little and the suspension is slightly bouncy but it never feels disconcerting or uncomfortable.

It’s far from sure-footed but there’s nothing about the driving experience that would put you off.

I was testing the 1.6 diesel, which offers up just 105bhp but never actually feels too slow. Arguably, the TwinAir would be a better bet but it’s technology makes it pricey and I genuinely can’t think of anything bad to say about the diesel offering. Other, perhaps, than the fact I can’t see the point in opting for the 1.3 version.

The TwinAir, incidentally, isn’t a huge gulf away from the 1.6 diesel in the ecenomy stakes either. I was impressed at returning nigh-on 50mpg during my week with the 500L and I know from driving other TwinAir-powered cars that it would struggle to better that - especially on my varied commute.

Other aspects of the 500L’s overall package that caught my eye were the superb touch-screen LCD, the superb array of storage items and the comfy and stylish seats.

It may have some strong competition in this busy market, but it offers an awful lot for its thoroughly reasonable £15,000 starting price.

The 500L is actually a world away from the curent 500 but, at the same time, it’s still instantly recognisable as a family member. Its cute design has not been spoiled by any means, but I’m not sure you’d be buying a 500L for the same style-conscious reasons you’d choose the standard 500.

You’d buy the 500L because it’s a great bit of design in its own right.

FACT FILE:

Model tested: Fiat 500L 1.6 MultiJet Lounge, priced from £18,890

Engine: 1,598CC diesel delivering 105bhp and 320nm

Size: (L) 4,147mm (W) 1,784mm (H) 1,667mm

Maximum speed: 112mph

0-62mph 11.3 seconds

MPG: Urban: 52.3, Extra-urban: 72.4, Combined: 62.8

Emissions: 117g/km

Boot space: 400 litres

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