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2017 Fiat 500L review: First drive

3.5

The Good

  • Practical
  • 1.6-litre diesel is excellent
  • Improved interior

The Bad

  • Still ugly
  • No price to compare

The Fiat 500L has been given a new face and a new interior to keep it interesting, but should you buy one? We headed to Fiat's home to find out, as part of our test drive of the new 500L and 500L Cross.

If the Fiat 500 supermini is the pretty girl in her early twenties, the five-seater 500L compact MPV is her ugly sister that has a penchant for burgers and chips. Sure, you know the two cars are related but only one of them turns heads.

Yet here we are, with more than 400,000 500L sales worldwide and a mid-life facelift to continue that momentum. Proof, if ever it was needed, that a dollop of Italian charm glosses over the visual shortcomings.

We can understand why that would be the case. The 500 is a cool car, which is why everyone and their cat has one, so it makes sense for younger buyers entering into family life to make the jump into a larger, not so dissimilar Fiat.

So is the Italian family wagon more recommendable than before and should we avoid judging a book by its cover? We visited the Italian city of Turin for a test drive.

2017 Fiat 500L: What the 'affare'?

Bit of admin first. Although the Fiat 500L range is the same as before, the names have changed. The 500L is now known as the Urban, the Trekking is now the Cross and the MPW seven-seater is now the Wagon.

Fiat claims 40 per cent of 2017 500L's components are new. It is clear most of the work has been done to the inside though, because the new bumpers, daytime running lights, new grille and other tweaks only slightly polish an awkward exterior design.

The tweaks do at least bring the 500L more in line with the far prettier 500, while the revised interior really benefits from some simplification and the option of a superior infotainment system, which includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a touchscreen.

2017 Fiat 500L: How does it drive?

Nothing in the dynamic area has been changed, which means the new 500L drives like the old one. The suspension provides a firm but forgiving, sometimes bouncy ride, even with the Cross's 17-inch alloys.

The ridiculously light steering tells you very little about the road surface below, but it makes driving in the city particularly easy and the turning circle is small enough for tight manoeuvres.

The 1.6-litre MultiJet 120hp diesel offers ample grunt for hill climb duties and overtakes, while the six-speed manual makes gear changes hassle-free – even if it is notchy.

This particular engine is fast enough settles down to a reasonably quiet hum, but it can be unnecessarily noisy and send the odd unwanted vibration through the cabin at higher revs.

If you need to go petrol, the Twinair is a solid choice but a lower amount of torque means it needs to be pushed quite hard to make progress.

The biggest criticism is that the 500L lacks the same pep as the smaller 500 and the ruggedness of the 500L, but it is still more entertaining than some of its rivals. It can tackle a variety of terrains with enthusiasm, even without the option of four-wheel drive.

Driving faster makes the box on wheels feel more like a box on wheels, especially with considerable body roll to contend with, but understeer in a 500L can be quite fun and the thin wheels do offer reasonable grip.

Pleasing is the best way to describe the 500L, because although it is less competent than, say, a Ford B-Max it never makes driving a chore, which is a good thing for a car that will rack up the miles.

2017 Fiat 500L: What about the interior?

The 500L interior is improved and now looks more like what you get in the 500X and 500 supermini. It is, however, still a little plasticy in places although a few neat design touches keep your attention away from the less inspiring areas.

The new seven-inch infotainment system and touchscreen is an improvement on the old one, but then it can be as fiddly. Trying to find the mute navigation button, for instance, took considerably longer than it should and other useful options are buried in the menus.

A strongpoint of the 500L is visibility and the seating position, which is somewhat high and very upright. The ability to adjust the seats and steering wheel to a strong degree help make it easy to get comfy.

The Mini Countryman is nicer inside and arguably more stylish, which it should be given the price difference, but the new 500L is better than some of its other competitors.

2017 Fiat 500L: Can it go off road?

The Fiat 500X has more ground clearance than the 500L, but the former can do a little off-roading. A drive mode selector lets you use Traction+ for helping the front wheels deal with slippery surfaces, while Gravity Control lets you go down slopes at constant low speed.

We drove along a 5km stretch of gravel with quite a few large rocks sticking out the floor, nasty tree roots and craterous divots and the 500L was unphased. What it can do is definitely overkill for your local high street kerb or speed bump.

2017 Fiat 500L: Practicality?

The boxy design is bad for handling and aerodynamics, but it does mean head room and leg room is plentiful. Opt for the glass sunroof and those over six-foot will struggle more in the back though to the point it can be uncomfortable on long journeys.

Raising the gear knob makes the optional arm rest a more natural place to rest your elbow. There are two cup holders, large door bins and a decent-sized glovebox that help the new 500L deal with family life. A lack of much in the way of the centre rear seat is a plus, too.

As for the boot, you get 400 litres of space so the new 500L is competitive. You can adjust the boot floor height for coping with certain loads, while the square opening makes it easier to load wider items.

2017 Fiat 500L: Cost and price stuff?

Only the Spanish price has been revealed because of Brexit, presumably, but we doubt they will change too much in the UK. That means around the same price as the Vauxhall Crossland X and cheaper than the Mini Countryman.

For the lowest fuel bills, the 1.3-litre diesel is the best bet, especially as some of the smaller petrols take too much effort to get going, which makes them thirstier than Fiat's figures suggest.

In terms of equipment, the 500L Pop Star has climate control, cruise control, multi-function steering wheel, 3.5-inch TFT display, Bluetooth connectivity and power-adjustable heated side mirrors.

Above that is Lounge, which adds the Uconnect seven-inch display, dual-zone climate control, height-adjustable driver's seat, cruise control and front and rear electric windows. It also comes with the sun roof that makes it a less practical car, making it more difficult to recommend.

To give you an idea of what the new 500L may cost, the current price of the 500L Pop Star starts from £16,030 while the 500L Lounge starts from £17,430.

2017 Fiat 500L: Should I buy one, then?

Even though the new 500L is still a bit of an eyesore and some engines lack refinement, you do get a reasonable amount of car for the money and one that has more brand appeal than the equivalent Citroen and Ford.

The problem is that the 500X makes more sense if you want to go off-road and is a better car overall, while the smaller 500 is far nicer to drive if you can take the hit on space.

If, however, practicality is most important to you and there is no need for seven seats, the new 500L Urban and 500L Cross are worth a shot. Just avoid the sun roof if you have a tall family.

Key Specs

  • 1.6-litre 16v MultiJet
  • 120hp at 3,750rpm
  • 236lb/ft (320Nm) at 1,750rpm
  • 0-62mph in 11.8 seconds (top speed 114mph)
  • 114g/km of CO2
  • 65mpg (combined)
  • £TBC

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