First drive: 2015 Fiat 500L Trekking in Italy
This was one overseas media event that kept throwing us surprises by the bucketful. I was invited for a trip to Milan by Fiat to drive something or the other. What we got was a romp in a manual 500 with a new turbo engine as well as a brief run in an insane Alfa Romeo 4C, but more on all that later. The car in focus during the event was the Fiat 500L Trekking, a recently-released crossover that’s tentatively headed to UAE shores by the end of summer this year.
The Fiat 500L is a good bit larger than the little 500 hatchback. However, it still qualifies as a sub-compact crossover in overall size, and a funkily-styled one at that.
Available in several trim levels, the version we’re going to get in the UAE is the Trekking version, which has 13 mm of extra ground clearance, extra plastic body-cladding and unique 17-inch alloys.
What we drove in Italy is a special “Beats Edition” in celebration of its ear-shatteringly good Beats Audio system, matte paint, black wheels and some red trim, powered by a 120 hp 1.4-litre turbo engine mated to a 6-speed manual. While the Middle East won’t get this edition, we will still get the Beats stereo along with a 160 hp motor mated to a GCC-friendly automatic.
The hipster-inspired interior is all hard plastic, but there’s enough strategically-placed padded leatherette inserts to keep your elbows comfy. The seating position is great, all-round visibility is largely clear, there’s tons of storage spaces, and the controls are mostly easy to figure out, including the stubby handbrake lever. There’s even navigation, Bluetooth and a rear camera.
Italy may be the land of automatic Ferraris, of which I didn’t spot even one, but when it comes to regular cars, the manual gearbox still rules there. So I got a nice warm feeling inside after seeing that all the test cars at this international event were of the three-pedal variety.
Trundling around the country-side roads around Fiat’s Balocco facility was a pleasure, with a mixture of twisty changing-elevation roads, cramped town streets and clear high-speed straights surrounded by farmland, with the snow-capped Alps providing a beautiful backdrop. Yep, the frigging Alps!
The front-wheel-drive 500L is exactly the kind of crossover you’d want in the narrow roads of Italy. It’s not particularly quick, but boy is it entertaining with that 6-speed manual gearbox, with its light clutch action and soft shifter action. I could drive it all day without feeling fatigued in the slightest.
It even handles well at moderate driving speeds, with barely-perceptible body roll, somewhat-decent steering feedback, and linear brake-pedal feel. It’s basically just a slightly-taller car, with no obvious compromises.
Going up to 150 kph on empty single-lane roads, the car was very stable. Sprung a bit on the firm side, it was still smooth enough on most road surfaces with only the slightest hint of jitteriness, and handled most potholes without crashing over them. Wind noise only reached moderate levels, while the engine revved barely over 2000 rpm at 120 kph in sixth gear. Fuel consumption was also well under 10 litres/100 km during our spirited drive.
The real question is whether the 500L will do well in the Middle East. It has everything going for it except perceived brand reputation. If they get the final pricing right, preferably well under the Dhs 100,000 mark, as well as tack on a long warranty and service package, preferably around the 5-year mark, then it will be off to a good start. It’s a spacious little people-carrier that’s a lot cooler than anything else in its segment.