Fiat SA has expanded its 500 family with its funky 500L, here to challenge the Mini Countryman. Lovable and practical MPV or ponderous Mom's Taxi? We find out…In 2008 Fiat revived its darling of the 1950s with the launch of its 500 in South Africa. Now there's an addition to its local family – the 500L.Fiat 500L image galleryWhen Fiat updated its classic Cinquecento in the form of its funky, retro 500 a relieved Fiat found itself with a best-seller. Despite its steep price and minimal functionality, its great looks and trendy interior made it a hit with twentysomethings. The 500 can be likened to a chic handbag so, like any accessory, its appeal waxes and wanes depending on season and offers little in terms of practicality. Fiat realised that the trendy hipsters who purchased a 500 years ago had since grown up and became in need of a vehicle to transport children. With this in mind, the automaker transformed its cheeky 500 into a chunky, albeit chic, MPV. The new model is available locally with two engine (1.4 petrol and 1.6 diesel) and trim (Easy and Lounge) options. PULLED, STRETCHED 500Based on the Punto platform, the cars are substantially larger than the 500 (68.5cm longer, 15cm wider and taller) at 4.15m long, 1.78m wide, 1.66m high and with a wheelbase of 2.61m. At first glance it seems ponderous but if Mini can get away with the Countryman, Fiat should be able to pull this off. The Countryman (priced from R303 283 to the Fiat's R232 000) measures four metres long, 1.7m wide and 1.5m tall and has a 2.5m wheelsbase.It takes some time to get used to its looks; it doesn’t have the love-at-first-sight appeal of the standard 500. It's taller, quirkier and appears ungainly but spend some time behind the wheel and you’ll forget its quirks and realise it’s a purpose-built Mom's Taxi with a lot of Italian flair.The 1.4 petrol is capable of 70kW/127Nm, the 1.6 77kW/320Nm. Each is hooked to a six-speed manual gearbox and uel consumption in the 1.4 is listed as 6.2 litres/100km (diesel 4.5) and emissions are 145g/km and 117g/km respectively. No auto option is in the works for SA. The petrol option is sadly underpowered; great for schlepping around a city but left wanting on hills. The diesel has a superb amount of torque and is a better option though for a substantial premium (see prices, below).Body roll is reasonably contained and it turns into and hugs corners adequately. It doesn’t wallow through bends but changes direction slowly and steadily. It’s not for enthusiastic drivers but, despite its proportions, offers surprising grip and balance and handles moderate-speed corners reasonably well.LOOK AT ALL THAT SPACEInside is where the 500L excels: loads of cabin space and 400-litres boot capacity that can grow to 1310 litres with the rear seats folded flat. Fiat expands the squashed confines of its 500 in favour of a voluminous interior bolstered by a sunroof, headroom and extended dashboard. The automaker has the basics right, including comfortable seats, storage cubbies and the large boot. Much like its hatchback sibling, the L has body-colored glossy trim panels that serve to brighten an interior that would otherwise be an expanse of plastics.The 500L is the first car in the Fiat stable to use a multimedia device based on its new Uconnect infotainment platform. The 12.7cm touchscreen provides audio streaming, Bluetooth, USB and auxiliary capability.The cabin has six airbags; road control is aided by anti-lock brakes, brake assist and electronic stability control, wheelspin regulation, hill hold, daytime running lights, fog lights and the headlights have an adaptive cornering functionality. Other useful tech includes the automaker’s Motor Schleppmoment Regelung (MSR – for use in wet conditions to prevent the wheels locking), driving steering torque (used in low-grip conditions) and electronic rollover mitigation. The 500L takes on the likes of the Mini Countryman, Kia Soul and Opel Meriva. Despite is flaws, the 500L offers great utility, space and (provided you purchase the diesel) a fun driving experience in a shape that moms will love. Despite its ungainly looks it’s a good car that’s pleasant and relaxing behind the wheel. Fiat stands a good chance of making an impact on families in South Africa, provided it can get over its “alleged” reliability woes. Speaking of which...'PERCEPTION PROBLEM IN SA'Fiat has the unfortunate task of ridding itself of a parts and reliability stigma in SA. Wheels24 asked Trent Barcroft, CEO of Chrysler SA which owns Fiat, whether there was any credence to issues of reliability?Barcroft said: “There’s a perception problem in SA. I believe the perceptions some have of us is incorrect. Our products are quality, they’re fun to drive and supported by us.“We’re increasing our network from 51 to 57 dealers in 2014. We have national coverage and are able to support our buyers. The perception that there is a problem with parts availability is a falsehood, poor rumours.”“I would say any parts and supply issues are false perceptions derived from the past. I dare say that we have the highest rates of parts and supply in the country. It's possible we have too many parts."Barcroft said: “There’s going to be more additions to the 500 family such as the Trekking and Multi-Air models. We’re considering a 500X for 2015.”TAKING ON WHEELS24 READERSEarlier in October 2013, Wheels24 reader Edward Strydom commented on our "Fiat SA launches big daddy 500L" article: "Again, Fiat SA is making the very same mistake they did with the launch of the 500 back in the day. It's way overpriced. Think about this, you can buy a Focus diesel powershift or the likes for the same price as this diesel 500L."Don't they learn or do any research? Perhaps Fiat needs to fix the local management once and for all. Having owned a Fiat before, they are awesome little cars and deserve more success. Alas."In reply, Barcroft read our story and commented: "Edward, Trent Barcroft, CEO of Fiat SA here. Interesting comments but you really fail to understand the auto business. As for pricing, please have a look at the value proposition: high spec level and full maintenance/warranty included with the vehicle. I invite you to stop by your local Fiat dealer and have a first hand look at the 500L. Take a test drive! It is a great car with tons of value and appeal!"PRICESFiat 500L 1.4 16V Easy – R232 990Fiat 500L 1.4 16V Lounge – R247 990Fiat 500L 1.6 MultiJet Lounge – R287 990The 500L is sold with a three-year or 100 000km warranty and a maintenance plan.