Fiat’s 500L gets a rugged makeover

 
Ryan Borroff
With its practical appearance and off-road promise, the 500L Trekking is a town car that likes to get dirty

The Mini Countryman doesn’t look much like the Mini hatchback, but customers don’t seem to mind. Mini’s SUV crossover is selling very well in the UK, appealing to a family market that wants something practical, with a degree of outdoor promise, without losing that certain Mini style.

Fiat wants a piece of that pie too. It’s latest 500L model doesn’t look much like its 500 city car either but that hasn’t stopped it being a success in the family car market. According to the Italian manufacturer, 62 per cent of the buyers of its 500L family saloon are mums. Now it wants to entice more men (read: dads) with its latest model, the 500L Trekking.

It’s a more rugged version, which offers some off-road promise, aimed at cool, young families who need more space in a stylish motor that can deal with the wet, snow-covered roads of our dreary UK winters. It’s no full-on 4x4 – it’s still front wheel drive only – but has an increased ride height, giving an extra 15mm of ground clearance, and an electronic traction aid that should see it better able to handle slippery conditions. It’s also sold with mud and snow tyres as standard.

The design changes between the 500L and the new model are subtle. I drove the top of the range 105hp 1.6-litre turbodiesel model.

The car is improved by underbody skid protectors, chunky wheel arches and bumpers. The layout is simple and functional and the mixture of plastics and cool styling ensures the interior feels youthful. The view is good, helped by the extra height and the quarter glass in the A-pillars. The boot space – even without folding the rear seats – is a respectable 412 litres. Fiat hopes it looks rugged enough to attract urban buyers who can’t wait to escape the City for family weekends in the great outdoors.

The ride is comfortable and the handling is good, though there is quite a lot of road noise in the cabin from those mud and snow tyres and the steering feels vague. With a 0-62mph time of 12 seconds it’s not quick but most of the time the engine noise – which is not the nicest of sounds – remains remote unless you accelerate hard.

I took the Trekking across some dusty, gravelly and rocky tracks, though the sun’s heat had dried them to asphalt-like hardness. Consequently, it’s difficult to say exactly how capable the electronic Traction+ system will be in real world use. That said, the promise will be good enough for many buyers. The technology is simple; the electronic aid brakes a front wheel if it is losing grip and sends torque to the other driven wheel instead to keep you going in a slippery situation. It should be able to deal with most winter road conditions, proving that most people don’t need full four-wheel drive capability.

Tellingly, the car has a city brake control system; despite its off-road pretentions, its most natural home is still in the town. It allows the vehicle to stop without the intervention of the driver when travelling up to 18mph, if the driver has failed to do so. I tested it out in a field by trying to crash into an image of another car. I couldn’t, convincing me that the new technology is a great thing to have. The insurance industry certainly thinks so if the unusually low insurance group is anything to go by.

I rather liked the 500L Trekking. It costs just £700 more than the top spec 500L, is better to look at and includes the Traction+ and City Braking functionality, which means you should be able to offset the extra cost against your reduced insurance bill. Smart money is on the 500L Trekking.

THE FACTS:
FIAT 500L TREKKING
PRICE: £19,590
0-62MPH: 12.0 secs
TOP SPEED: 109mph
CO2 G/KM: 122g/km
MPG COMBINED: 60.1mpg

THE VERDICT:
DESIGN Three stars
PERFORMANCE Three stars
PRACTICALITY Four stars
VALUE FOR MONEY Four stars