HOW far can people’s perception of a brand be stretched? Marketers love finding out by introducing a popular brand into a different product category from where it originated. These offshoots often achieve great sales success and leverage brand equity. Just ask Mini. It has grown from a compact city car to an entire model range culminating in the compact SUV-cum-crossover Countryman. And all the Minis sell well, which is why the firm will soon launch spin-offs based on the third-generation Cooper.
But, sometimes, brand extensions can be ill-conceived and doomed to fail. There are a few examples of veritable long shots in the automotive market: BMW seems to be struggling to convince car buyers its awkward 5 Series GT is a true Beemer; Volkswagen is still flogging its Phaeton grand saloon even though no-one with the wherewithal to buy one is interested; and history will show whether the upcoming Bentley SUV is a masterstroke – or an artichoke.
The point is, stretch the buying public’s perception of a brand too far and it might snap, rendering the product a sales dud and costing the parent company millions in development money and brand equity.
Which brings us in a round-about way to the Fiat 500L, the subject of this test. Piggybacking on the success of the 500, which has been a roaring sales success worldwide, Fiat hopes the larger of the two cars can trade off the equity of the chic city car’s name without damaging it. Because, on paper, the two vehicles have very little in common apart from a degree of parts commonality and design essentials. So, does the 500L have enough cheek to justify the name, or should Fiat have paid a marketing company millions to invent a catchy new one?
Visually, it’s not a love-at-first-sight affair like the 500 – the Fiat 500L is far too ungainly and tall for people to start cooing over it – but the newcomer has a goofy charm and admittedly doesn’t resemble anything in the segment. It’s undoubtedly retro-pastiche, but that attribute hasn’t stopped the Countryman from flying off showroom floors. There’s one caveat, though: we’d avoid the dour Minimal Grey finish and opt for a bright red or light blue, which complement the different roof shade and shiny 16-inch alloy wheels.
The cabin is a more conventional affair, but that’s not a criticism. The glass area is huge and includes a full-length panoramic roof with a shading net, the latter of which is ineffective in sunlight, as well as slim pillars (the A-pillars are split). As a result, all-round visibility out of the 500L is excellent, emphasised by a commanding driving position that is upright but comfortable (although some testers wished for longer squabs).
The dashboard is equally easy to use. The dials are clear, the infotainment system has large, clearly marked buttons and touchscreen controls. What’s more, the (very effective) climate control system on this Lounge model is controlled by chunky, solid-feeling rotary dials.
The cockpit has more in common with that of the Panda – again, not a criticism – but it can be specced to more closely resemble the 500’s in terms of colours and trim (including a suede-like material on the facia). The quality of the materials is beyond those of entry-level Fiat models, we’re happy to report, and our test unit rarely exhibited a rattle or squeak in two weeks of fairly strenuous use.
Practicality is another strong suit, and here the 500L bests more conventional rivals such as the Nissan Qashqai. Headroom is generous in front and good at the back (the second row is sited higher than the front pews, further aiding visibility for children), legroom abundant and the boot can swallow up to 352 dm3 with the seats in place and 1 144 dm3 with them flipped forward. It’s a very useful space, too, with pop-out bag grips and oddment storage spaces along the sides, and a three-position floor. In fact, the cabin is littered with thoughtful touches, including seats that fold and tumble in one action, a front-passenger seat that can be flattened to accommodate long items and a plethora of storage spaces (we counted 22) throughout.
Besides this 1,6-litre turbo-diesel, Fiat also offers a 1,4-litre naturally aspirated petrol. We’d recommend an extensive try-before-you-buy approach, as our test vehicle weighed a portly 1,5 tonnes that might overwhelm the latter which otherwise performs ably in the 500.
The test unit’s MultiJet motor is well suited the 500L, in fact. Look past the leisurely zero-to-100 km/h time of 14,46 seconds – the engine won’t rev faster than 2 500 r/min when stationary, necessitating some clutch slip to achieve that time – and rather to the in-gear acceleration, which is strong enough for this version to never feel malnourished.
That said, the gearing is long, necessitating a change to first in slow-moving traffic, second up steep hills and fifth during overtaking. Conversely, this means the turbodiesel fades into the background at the national limit, which is just as well, as the Fiat 500L certainly isn’t immune to annoying wind flutter around the large windscreen and side mirrors.
Dynamically, the 500L has few failings. The electric power steering is light (it can be lightened further by pressing the City button on the facia), but naturally weighted, though it exhibits a firm resolve to self-centre at any opportunity, and the six-speed manual shifts cleanly and the lever is perfectly placed.
Ride comfort is equally good. It’s just firm enough so that the sprites seated at the back don’t become green-gilled from roly-poly body motions, but not harsh enough to shake loose their milk teeth. Handling is much of a muchness; the 500L resists roll well but the front soon washes into understeer if the mom or dad behind the wheel becomes overly excited.
One element of the 500L’s dynamic repertoire that didn’t garner universal praise is the braking performance. It’s good in day-to-day use, but proved somewhat weak in our emergency-braking tests, scoring a middling average of 3,30 seconds after 10 stops. Safety equipment comprises, inter alia, six airbags, ABS with EBD and EBA and a traction-control system. The Fiat 500L scored five stars for overall crash protection in a recent round of EuroNCAP tests.
We liked the 500L, even more than we thought we would. Even the Sceptical Simons on the team had to admit that, beyond the questionable use of the 500-name, it’s a vehicle with a fair few arrows in its quiver. As a compact family vehicle, it’s expertly judged: the size is right, the cabin roomy and practical, the engine strong enough and frugal, and the price is quite reasonable given the inclusive three-year maintenance plan. In fact, the Fiat 500L is so good that it could have easily done without the weight of expectation created by its nomenclature; it has an identity all its own.