Mo­tor­ing

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

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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

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