Overall rating: 4/5
In a segment normally dominated by practical but not particularly stylish MPVs the 500L stands proud. It may not be as fun to drive as its sibling, but it boasts the comfort, practicality and - if our guess on the price proves right - good value too.
In the metal 4/5
It's all in the name really; the L in 500L means large and in comparison to the standard car it is huge. However the 500L is only 7cm longer than a Fiat Punto yet, thanks to clever design, can accommodate five six-feet-plus passengers and their luggage. It is actually the Punto rather than the 500 chassis that underpins the 500L, but that hasn't stopped Fiat borrowing the twin round headlights and other 500 trademarks to keep the car familiar looking.
Comparisons with the MINI Countryman are obvious but in truth the Fiat is a larger car, riding slightly higher and with a loftier roofline than the MINI. It is also more spacious inside with, what Fiat says, is a class leading 400-litre boot that features a 'Cargo Magic Space' three-level boot floor to separate items within the space itself. The rear set, split 60/40, can be slid fore and aft to maximise leg- or boot space depending on requirements and are equipped with the easy 'Fold & Tumble' system to collapse them flat to the floor. Apparently there are 1,500 different seat configurations possible but only a handful will ever be used. A fold flat passenger seat means that the 500L can carry items up to 2.4 metres long (just shy of eight foot) and Fiat delighted in showing us a fridge freezer inside the cabin to prove the point. It is definitely Ikea-safe.
Driving it 3/5
Of the three engines offered - a 1.4-litre 95hp four-cylinder petrol, 105hp TwinAir and an 85hp 1.3-litre turbodiesel - it is only the latter two that are likely to make it to Ireland, and even then there is a question mark over the TwinAir. With 112g/km it is the MultiJet diesel that has been deemed most suitable to the Irish market.
Around town the diesel unit pulls well with peak torque of 200Nm kicking in as low as 1,500rpm. The five-speed manual (six-speed in the petrol models) is not as slick and precise as that found in the standard 500 but it does fall easily to hand and the oversized gear-knob sits nicely in the palm.
The steering, while lacking some of the feel that makes the regular 500 such a characterful car, is nicely judged: it's light around town and has just enough weight when you venture outside. It is when outside urban limits that the diesel's miserly 85hp really begins to stand out. Any sort of incline or, God forbid, an overtake requires you to drop down a gear and mash your foot to the floor. And even then all you get is noise permeating the otherwise refined cabin - but not much movement. The perkier 105hp TwinAir may not be a top priority for Fiat Ireland but we hope it does make it.
Our Italian test route comprised of town driving, a quick motorway sprint and a brief spin in the mountains and at all times the suspension remained composed and refined - even the Turin cobblestones did not intrude too much.
Safety-wise, sophisticated ESC with traction control, hill holder, rollover mitigation and DST (automatic steering corrections) are all standard, while an automatic collision avoidance/mitigation system, "City Brake Control", will be available shortly after launch.
What you get for your money 4/5
The Fiat 500L is scheduled to go into right-hand drive production in Q4 of 2012 with the first Irish models arriving in early 2013. As such final engine options, trim levels, specifications and pricing have not been announced, though to compete with the likes of the Citroen C3 Picasso we expect the entry level Pop model to start from €20,000.
Standard equipment will include a five-inch touchscreen 'UConnect' multimedia system with wireless music streaming, SMS reader, DAB, voice recognition, integrated satellite navigation and Fiat's latest 'eco:Drive Live' software that tracks how efficiently you're driving in real time. The system will also be upgradable with smart-phone style Apps, keeping occupants up-to-date with, for example, live Facebook, Twitter, traffic, news and weather feeds.
The Fiat 500L will be the first car to feature a sound system developed by Beats Audio (co-founded by Dr. Dre) using technology borrowed from the recording studio. This is said to deliver audio the way engineers hear it in the recording studio rather than the low quality MP3 standard we have become accustomed to. Somewhat bizarrely it will also sport its own built in espresso machine. Made in conjunction with coffee machine producers, Lavazza, the machine sits between the front seats and can make a perfect cup of espresso that can be decanted into the accompanying coffee cups. Only the Italians...
The tagline for the Fiat 500L is 'Growing up is cool' and while it shares the looks of the 500 hatchback it has lost some of its coolness along the way. Trying to make a cool MPV was always going to be a difficult proposition but the 500L does feature enough clever technology and features to appeal to family buyers who are looking for something a little bit outside the norm.