For a car to be remembered, it needs a standout feature. A unique selling point that ensures it grabs a page in the big book of automotive history. Take the LaFerrari for example – the fastest Ferrari ever and therefore guaranteed to pass into motoring folklore. Or the Ford Pinto – remembered solely for its tendency to burst into flames in the event of an accident. Then there’s the Fiat 500L: the first car to feature an onboard coffee machine.
The Lavazza 500 Espresso Experience – to give it its full name – was the most talked about feature of the 500L at the car’s recent launch at Legoland. And you’d forgive Fiat for being a bit miffed about this – they’d argue that the 500L offers so much more than the chance to wake up and smell the coffee on the morning commute. Like the 400 litres of boot space, which is 50 litres more than the Volkswagen Golf. Or the fact that, with the passenger seat folded forward, the 500L offers a class-leading load length of 2.4 metres.
But no, over dinner with Fiat’s management team, the conversation inevitably started and finished with coffee. A bit like the dinner itself actually. But then perhaps this is a good thing – the coffee machine will get people talking about the car and will certainly give dealers something to play with. Look out for wide-eyed Fiat salesman wandering the streets late at night, still buzzing from yet another double espresso demonstration.
It promises to be a pretty cool piece of kit that sits in place of the storage bin between the two front seats. Naturally it will only work when the car is stationary, but within two minutes you could be enjoying a fresh cup of Lavazza coffee. You’ll even get a set of bespoke coffee cups, designed to fit neatly into the front cup holders. It’s a good idea – you have to wonder why it hasn’t been offered by Rolls-Royce or Maybach. I confidently predict that it will prove to be rather popular in London.
Fiat hasn’t confirmed a price for the coffee machine yet, but potentially it could save you a few bob on takeaway coffees every year. And with the money you save you could buy a disguise to save you the embarrassment of driving the 500L. Let’s face it – it’s no looker.
Ah, I hear you cry, the Fiat Multipla was no oil painting either and yet its rightly revered by petrolheads across the land. It’s as though its inherent ugliness gave it a unique appeal – a case of being so bad, it’s good. But then the Multipla was – and still is – very good at what it sets out to do. So is the 500L its spiritual successor?
Well, yes and no. Let’s get the styling issue out of the way first. When it was unveiled early last year I remember tweeting a photo and warning people it may put them off their corn flakes. I then followed it up with a similar comment having seen it in the metal at the Geneva Motor Show. Have my thoughts changed following some quality time in its company?
A bit – but I still find it mildly offensive. Simply supersizing the key details from the Fiat 500 and creating a bigger, more spacious version just doesn’t work. At best the 500L looks cumbersome and awkward. Sure, there are some neat touches, such as the chrome door handles and rear lights, but it remains an ungainly figure. Nobody on the launch managed to look good behind the wheel either and such things will matter to the image conscious target market. Retaining the look of the 500 in a car that’s longer than a Punto and as wide as a Bravo is admirable, but to my eyes it doesn’t work.
But what do I know? Leaving Legoland I bumped into two Italians enthusiastically waving their arms at the 500L. They had no idea what it was, but felt the styling was ‘bello’ and felt it was just what Fiat needed. They could have been more enthusiastic if there had been a Ferrari LaFerrari at Legoland. Mind you, they were considerably older than the young, chic and trendy people Fiat will be hoping to attract.
So I’m not convinced by the exterior, but I was completely won over by the interior. There’s nothing particularly ground breaking on the inside (the coffee machine isn’t available yet), but it feels incredibly spacious and, with the optional full length fixed glass roof, wonderfully light and airy. The amount of head and legroom in the 500L is truly brilliant. Even at 6 ft 3 I had plenty of room and even with my seat furthest back, there was still bags of room in the back. The 500L’s ungainly dimensions are beginning to make sense. Make a note – this is the only car of its size capable of carrying five passengers and five suitcases. Nice going, Fiat.
Interior quality is perfectly adequate and looks more than capable of handling all that family life could throw at it. There are 22 different storage compartments that can handle anything from a mobile phone to a water bottle. There’s even space for an umbrella. Fiat has also employed a strategic approach of not having a base model on the 500L. Instead the Pop Star and Easy trim levels are designed to appeal to different audiences but are both priced the same.
Pop Star is for the yoof of today – with a body colour painted dashboard, bright seat design, chrome side mouldings and 16-inch alloy wheels. Easy is focused on comfort, with a soft touch dashboard, toned down seats, electric rear windows, parking sensors and 16-inch steel wheels. Both models are priced at £14,990.
The range-topping Lounge model takes things to a higher level. There’s a suede-covered dashboard, dual-zone climate control, automatic wipers and lights, 16-inch alloys, fog lights, parking sensors and electric rear windows. The huge 1.5 square metre Skydome glass roof also comes as standard. Lounge living doesn’t come cheap though. Depending on your choice of engine you could end up spending between £16,390 and £18,890.
In truth, the best value is to be found somewhere in the middle. The excellent 0.9 TwinAir is appealing, but the 1.6-litre MultiJet diesel is a terrific all-rounder. Pricey at £17,490 for the Pop Star or Easy, but good all the same.
The same can also be said about the way the 500L drives too. It’s a bit of a shocker, but the pumped up 500 actually handles pretty well. Show it a twisty B-road and it appears unfazed. There’s a limit of course, but should yummy mummy (or daddy) find themselves late picking up little Mario from gym class, they’ll find the 500L can be pressed pretty hard before it’s unsettled.
Equally, the 500L feels composed and comfortable when pottering about town, which is what it’ll be doing most of the time. The ride quality is very good, effectively smoothing out all but the worst bumps in the road.
It’s just a shame the seats aren’t a little more supportive. You tend to sit on them rather than in them. And the gearbox is nothing to get excited about either, but I can’t really see it causing a rumpas down at the parent and toddler group.
So how do I conclude the review of the Fiat 500L?
Well you’ll need to get used to the sight of bloated 500s as the 500L will soon be followed by a 500XL (7-seater) and 500X (Mini Countryman rival). This is Fiat doing a MINI, so you can expect to see the 500 morphing into a distinctive sub-brand. This was confirmed by our hosts over dinner. And I get that. Fiat is at its best when its producing small cars: the Panda is brilliant and the 500 has bags of appeal. Then it all goes a bit array once you move into the bigger stuff.
But from a business perspective, Fiat needs a range of bigger cars that 500 owners will want to move into when they hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet. MINI has got this covered, so why not Fiat? Think of the lifetime value of young 500 owner.
And although I’m not a fan of the way the 500L looks, it is a fresh and cheery take on what’s typically a dull and uninspiring segment. Besides, perhaps I’ll grow to like it in the way that I like the Multipla?
It will almost undoubtedly sell well, coming into its own in the city. The on-board coffee machine should avoid the need to visit a coffee shop for an expensive takeaway every day and the interior space and layout is a rather compelling package.
And the coffee machine will at least ensure the 500L secures a slot in the big book of automotive history. If it’s your cup of tea, go ahead and smell the coffee.
Pint of Milk: The 500L is a surprisingly good car to drive. Not good enough to tempt you out of bed in the morning, but good all the same: 6
Filling station forecourt: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the 500L is no looker. That said, it’s lifted slightly by nice detailing: 4
You don’t see many of those: This remains to be seen, but Fiat has high hopes for the 500L. Soon to be joined by an XL version too: 5
Is it worth it?: It’s pricey, but there’s a brand to pay for here. The 500 badge is hot property, so Fiat will hope it rubs off on the L: 5
Petrolbloggyness: Well PetrolBlog loves small Fiats although supersize 500s aren’t quite our thing. A good car that lacks PetrolBloggyness: 4
Total score for the Fiat 500L: 48