Fiat is following Mini’s lead by introducing bigger models based on its 500 microcar. wheels’ Sony Thomas tests the 2014 500L Trekking in Italy before it comes to our shores
The Fiat 500L Trekking Beats Edition is a break from tradition – and that’s a good thing.
As revolting as the idea of a Beetle SUV is to a VW purist, it’s not something that can be ruled out as a possibility in the future. Because in the car industry, just as in any other business, money talks. And when it does, everything else – including sanctity of heritage and long-held perceptions – will be tuned out.
It’s money that talked Mini into going mega and Porsche into building a sportscar on stilts. And money isn’t something Fiat can afford to ignore. It’s something the Italian behemoth ran out of before Sergio Marchionne took the reins in 2004 and turned its fortunes around.
So when the bean counters in Turin dictate that the diminutive Fiat 500 should be put on a steroid overdose and forced to spawn offspring of varied sizes, the designers and engineers have no choice but to do it.
The first such model that heralds a wider process of consolidation and expansion within Fiat’s brand portfolio is the 500L, which is Fiat’s first real attempt at tapping into markets outside Europe that have an affinity towards larger vehicles. Already on sale in Europe and the US, the 500L will be introduced into growth markets around the world, including the Middle East, this year.
One look at the 500L and you realise that Fiat has employed the same formula used by Mini in designing the Countryman – retain the charming looks of your iconic microcar and make it bigger.
The car also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Mini Countryman
from almost every angle. At 4,140mm long, 1,780mm wide and 1,660mm high, it’s 594mm longer, 153mm wider and 141mm taller than the 500.
This jump in size translates into generous space inside the cabin, which offers surprisingly good headand legroom all round. The space is also highly flexible thanks to the rear seats, which can be slid back and forth or folded individually. With the rear seats all the way back, the 500L’s boot can hold 343 litres worth
It impresses me with its ability to breeze over Milan’s cobbled streets
of cargo, which can be expanded to 400 litres with the seats forward and an impressive 1,310 litres with all three seats folded away. The sense of roominess is further enhanced by the large glass area that lets in more light and offers great visibility.
My test car is the new range-topper, the Beats Edition, based on the 500L Trekking variant, which is the model that will make it to the Middle East. Although it doesn’t have all-wheel drive, the Trekking variant boasts a marginally higher ride height compared to the rest of the line-up.
The new model owes its name to the 520-watt, seven-speaker sound system installed by Beats by Dr Dre.
Apart from the sound system, there are a few other changes to this edition that set it apart, like the two-tone black and grey paint, which can be specified in matte or glossy finish, and 17in alloy wheels housing red brake callipers. Although the 500L looks as upmarket as a Mini Countryman from the outside, things are slightly different once you get inside the cabin.
The plastics used to make the dashboard and the door panels are not of the quality you’d expect in a car that goes against a Mini, which benefits from BMW’s impeccable build quality and choice of materials. However, I’m sure customers will be willing to overlook this if Fiat prices the car competitively against the expensive Mini. The rest of the cabin is nice, with superbly supportive seats that have the 500 logo embossed in red on the backrests, and features like dual-zone climate control.
The Beats edition I’m driving is powered by a new 1.4-litre turbocharged engine that’s good for 118bhp and 215Nm of torque. Mated to a smooth-shifting and precise six-speed manual gearbox, the engine packs enough punch to lug the 500L around effortlessly.
But the great news is that the Trekking model we’ll get here will have the even more powerful version of the 1.4-litre Multiair engine under its bonnet, churning out 160bhp and 250Nm of torque. And as you’d expect, in place of the manual, a sixspeed dual-clutch automatic will be brought here, which Fiat assures me will be as fun as the stick shift.
The steering and handling are no match for the go-kart-like dynamics of the smaller 500 or even the Countryman, but are better than many similarly sized cars on the market. On the Balocco proving grounds and the twisty roads that wind along the Italian Alps, body roll is noticeable in the 500L, but on the way back it impresses me with its soft, civilised ride on highways and its ability to breeze over potholes and Milan’s rough, cobbled streets.
If you’re looking for a crossover that drives like a hot hatch, then the Fiat 500L is probably not what you want. A Mini Countryman or even a Nissan Juke would better fit the bill. What you get in a 500L is a spacious, practical, comfortable family car that retains the Cinquecento’s quirkiness.
Drive it and you’ll realise it’s not at all bad to break from tradition.
The Trekking variant boasts a slightly higher ride height than the rest of the line-up
Despite an upmarket exterior, the quality of interior plastics, right, leaves a bit to be desired