The Fiat 500L MPV dons a pair of hiking boots in its more aggressively-styled 'Cross' guise. Jonathan Crouch takes a look.
Customers like the practicality of small MPV People Carriers but sales in this category are falling because small SUVs are more charismatic. So what if you could produce a little MPV with the charisma of a little SUV? That's the thinking behind Fiat's much improved 500L, especially in the case of the SUV-like 'Cross' variant.
Is there still a place for the Fiat 500L in this changing market? The Italian brand thinks there is. To prove the point, the company thoroughly updated this car in mid-2017, changing 40% of all its components and in the process, creating the much improved model we're going to look at here. The previously rather awkward looks now have more in common with the 500 citycar, media connectivity's taken a step forward and the cabin is of much higher quality. Just as importantly, this model now has three distinct identities: the standard 'Urban' version; the mid-range 'City Cross' model; and this top 'Cross' variant.
Lots of options then, for a compact People Carrier that aims to bring a welcome dash of fashion to family motoring, a car that Fiat says you can be passionately practical about. Let's check it out.
There's no off road gadgetry to give the 500L Cross any off-tarmac prowess, but buyers to get a 'High ride' suspension that takes you a little further off the deck, which might be helpful in muddy car parks. As with the standard model, you get an urban confidence with the 500L, something encouraged by the light lock-to-lock steering. It's a car you might enjoy on the school run, if not quite so much pushing on beyond the city limits. Unfortunately, only one engine is now on offer, a 95bhp petrol 1.4 that's one of Fiat's older efforts and which, thanks to limited pulling power, doesn't really feel as fast as the performance stats suggest (rest to 62mph in 12.8s on the way to 111mph). Beyond town tarmac, the 500L feels a little out of its comfort zone. Here, you might wish that the steering offered you a little more feedback and that there was a bit less body roll through the bends.
That probably won't bother most likely owners too much but on longer trips, they might wish that the issue of refinement had been slightly more thoroughly addressed. We highlighted this when we first tested this car back in 2012 and nothing's been done to improve things since, which is a touch disappointing. It isn't something you really notice at lower speeds, but when you're pushing or are cruising at or around the legal limit on the highway, there's simply more road and wind noise than you'd normally expect from a car of this kind.
The changes made to this revised 500L have mainly been about creating more of a visual family connection between this car and the 500 city runabout that Fiat hopes many potential buyers will be graduating to it from. Most of the family resemblance is tied up in what the brand calls a 'moustache and badge' combo, which they hope you'll see at the front in the way that the chromed strip and the upper grille just beneath it sit between the two main headlights. The effect of this is a bit more prominent now that the designers have given the lower frontal area a bit more emphasis courtesy of a revised front bumper. Ordinary variants get it incorporated with a chrome-studded three-dimensional lower grille, but for this SUV-styled 'Cross' version, there's a more aggressive silvered skid plate-style arrangement and special vented treatment for the upper grille. As with the 500L itself, it's something you'll either like a lot - or not at all.
Inside, quite a few changes have been made to try and lift the rather limited showroom appeal that afflicted the cabin of the initial version of this car. There's a redesigned steering wheel, better quality cabin plastics and a next-generation 'Uconnect' infotainment system. In the rear, the useful sliding bench remains and there's a decently-sized 400-litre boot. 'Cross' buyers only get the 5-seat bodystyle.
The SUV-style 'Cross' variant we're trying here comes in one single fully-loaded level of spec at prices starting from just under £18,000. For £1,100 less, the mid-range 'City Cross' version provides much of the same look but a little less kit. Either way, this is a confection that Fiat hopes will appeal to buyers in the Juke and Captur-style small Crossover segment who are not already convinced by the proper small SUV, the 500X. A properly dressed-up Fiat 500X is probably going to cost you well over £20,000. A 500L Cross, in contrast, offers much the same kind of style for a lot less; that could be significant.
Key 'Cross'-spec inclusions run to the 'Cargo Magic Space' hight adjustable load platform, 17-inch wheels and dual-zone climate control. Plus it gets the 'Trekking' side mouldings and raised 'High ride' suspension of the mid-range 'City Cross' variant. And there's height adjustment for the front passenger seat and lumbar adjustment for both front chairs. At this level in the range, you also get rear parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers and headlamps that turn on when the car detects fading light conditions.
The running cost returns of the single 95bhp 1.4-litre 16v petrol unit now on offer aren't especially eye-catching - 46.3mpg on the combined cycle and 143g/km of CO2. Still, you can do your bit on the frugality side thanks to the clever 'eco:Drive LIVE' system that's built into the centre-dash infotainment screen in most variants. Fiat says it's a bit like having a personal trainer on board.
This electronic coach isn't looking to fight the flab, but instead is looking to trim your figures rather than your figure; specifically those for fuel and CO2 efficiency. Earlier versions of the 'eco:Drive' system did this by monitoring your driving style, then producing a report you had to download onto a USB stick, then view on your home PC - which was all a bit nerdish. Here, it's all done with live assistance, analysing your driving in real time and making suggestions instantly displayed on the dash-mounted Uconnect infotainment screen. Your progress is graded in four areas - acceleration, deceleration, speed and shifting - and there's a little leafy tree graphic and a continually updated 'current trip index score' to show you how effective your efforts towards frugality have been. What else? Servicing? Well that will be needed every 18,000 miles.
'Even more 500, even more convenient, even more technology'. That, according to Fiat, is what's on offer with this much improved 500L. It won't stem the stampede away from small People Carriers into SUVs, but it may well carve out a very useful niche for itself, especially in this 'Cross' guise. This is provided you're happy with the single 1.4-litre petrol engine that's now on offer.
In summary, what we've got here - a little confusingly - is a little MPV that doesn't feel especially little, nor in some ways does it feel especially like an MPV. Fiat thinks that's a good thing, here delivering us a compact, versatile and very individual contender able to take care of people and baggage-carrying chores with a practical dash of Italian flair. For them, it's the 500 - all grown up. And a sensible family car you could really feel good about.