Before you accuse me of being unduly harsh consider the following. Manufacturers want to sell any new model they can get their hands on, and the 500L adds another family vehicle to the Fiat stable – but there is a Qubo 1.3 MultiJet Diesel and a Punto 1.4 MultiAir Easy that comes in at around R70 000 to R80 000 cheaper than the 500L 1.6 MultiJet Lounge, priced at a steep R287 990, and does pretty much the same job.
These other offerings are also still better priced than the entry level 500L 1.4 16v Easy at R232 990, and the 500L 1.4 16v Lounge at R247 990. Unfortunately, the Fiat 500L is also more expensive than competitors in the form of the Citroen C3, Kia Soul, Mini Countryman and the Opel Meriva.
And this is before you shop around and see just how much other car you can get for almost R290 000. But whether I think Fiat is trading on the merit of the trendy and moderately successfully Fiat 500 counts for nothing.
The styling aspect is going to divide people right down the middle. You are either going to like it and defend it as cute, or you are simply going to dislike it for being a strange and bigger looking version of the rather trendy and standard 500.
I personally am not a fan of the Mini Countryman styling, and the Fiat 500L substantially mimics the Mini’s styling. It will come as no surprise that I am not a fan of the 500L’s styling – but styling is a subjective topic so let’s rather get to the more objective technical detail the new car has to offer.
You are offered two specification versions in the entry level Easy and the top of the range Lounge models. You also get a choice of two engines with the tried and tested 1.4 litre 16v naturally aspirated powerplant developing 70kW at 6000rpm and 127Nm at 4500rpm.
It is said to get to 100 km/h in 12.8 seconds while going onto a top speed of 170 km/h with a claimed fuel consumption of 6.2 litres/100 kilometres.
We drove this derivative first in Lounge spec and, even at sea level, it was by no means sprightly. Liberal use of the six-speed manual gearbox (the only option across the entire range at the moment) was required to keep the car on the boil especially up the hills in and around Cape Town.
This derivative is going to really suffer in the thin air of the Reef. And more so if you make proper use of its family and luggage carrying capabilities.
Thankfully we managed to organise a swap to the 1.6 turbodiesel so we could get a brief and unscheduled drive in this model on the way back to the airport. This 77kW at 3750rpm and 320Nm at 1750rpm, which is a phenomenal amount of torque for such an engine, proved to be far more pleasant to drive.
It also comes with a budget friendly average fuel claim of just 4.5 litres/100 kilometres while it is said to get to 100 km/h in 11.3 seconds and do 181 km/h at the top end.
There is talk that the very good 1.4 MultiAir petrol will make its way here sometime in the future (it is available overseas, as is an auto transmission), but for now the 1.6 turbodiesel is the only one I would opt for if I had to buy a Fiat 500L.
The drive and feel of both cars we drove felt typically Fiat – light and a bit ropey in the gearshift department – which may not suit everybody. But it did make for easy commuting and manoeuvrability, and there is space a plenty should you want to load a bunch of luggage and five passengers for a holiday type trip.
Staying inside you get most of the luxury you would want, and even the new generation UConnect that manages the main media content such as the radio, mobile phone, media player, iPod or smartphone.
For safety you get six airbags – front, window and side airbags – front headlights with DRL (Daytime Running Lights) function and fog lights with the self-adaptive cornering function along with standard ABS, BAS (Brake Assist System) and the sophisticated ESC (Electronic Stability Control) that intervenes in driving conditions close to the limit.
Fiat has brought a bigger more family orientated 500 to a segment that offers massive competition and value for money, but is their brand equity and product offering strong enough to make real inroads into the market? Only time and vehicle sales can truly answer this question.
The 500L is available from 35 Fiat dealerships nationwide and comes standard with a three year/ 100 000 kilometre warranty and maintenance plan.