6 November 2013

Fiat 500L officially launched in Ireland

It's 15 months since I first drove a Fiat 500L, and that was for a half a day in the hills around Turin, and was expecting that it would be available in Ireland before the end of 2012, writes Brian Byrne.

But for various reasons, it's only now that they have cars here, and I've just been reminded about how good this thing is.

Background first. The modern 500 started out as a funky little retro car aimed at taking some of the cream off the cake that BMW's Mini was wolfing down all to itself. And yes, the little hatchback has settled itself into that small car segment very well indeed ... in Europe, North America and China too. But there's not going to be enough to feed the Fiat Auto operation on one small model, so the company developed the 500L, the 500L MPW 7-seater, and there's an SUV version of the car trundling out of Concept Alley as I write.

All those last are bigger cars than the original 500, so what's happened is that Fiat has developed that nameplate as a brand in itself almost. It's clever, it's funky, it's brave. And there's an argument to be made that Fiat have managed to do this better than BMW have with Mini, because there's much more practicality in the Italian maker's range.

Indeed, there's strong suggestions that Fiat will be concentrating in the future on two sub-brands within the Fiat compass, a similarly broad range of Pandas for the cheaper end, and the extended range of 500s at the buzzy part of the market, young professionals and older financially comfortable retirees who still have a glint of mischief in their eyes.

Anyhow, I've just reacquainted with the 500L for an afternoon, this time in Ireland. And the quick reaction is that there's a car here that could have a very strong impact on the family car market, if they get the marketing right.

The 5-seat 'standard' 500L is roomy, airy, an MPV if you want but just as easily a distinctive crossover/estate. Five full adults and their luggage is no problem absorbing, in an ambience that — depending on whether you've chosen Pop or Lounge — is very good to very, very good.

The smart interior design is easy to live with and in addition to being high quality, offers a sense that it'll be able to deal with a lot of tough use without coming undone.

You sit high in the traffic, with one of the best visibilities forward I've seen in any compact MPV for some long time. There's enough room for those behind me to be able to comfortably cross their legs if they want to.

I tried out two of the engines range, first the 85hp 1.3 diesel, with a 5-speed transmission. It proved to be a good, luggable and refined motor, never going to leave rubber on the road in acceleration terms, but very capable for any long distances at a sipping 4.2L/110km (or more than 67mpg equivalent).

Then, for curiosity, I took a run in the one with a turbocharged 900cc 2-cylinder TwinAir petrol. With only a marginal extra consumption of fuel, this 105hp unit is faster, and has a kinkier sound. The secret is to keep it at a sweet spot around 3,200rpm with the six gears, and it'll entertain and transport at the same time with a competency that, frankly, surprised me.

The launch of the 500L here coincides with a restructuring of the Fiat Auto operation in Ireland that is determined to pull the brand back into a position that reflects what I think is a good product line, albeit one that can't yet span as wide a range of segments as most of the competition.

Prices start at €21,750, while there's enough choice between the basic, the Trekking and the MPW to provide something for any size family. If you're in that quadrant, and thinking of buying in early 2014, don't pass your Fiat dealer buy. Well worth a look.

I'll provide a few full reviews in coming months when I get the chance for proper evaluation. But just now, I'm positive.