AN EARLY autumn holiday in Tuscany a few years ago revealed the unpredictability of the weather in northern Italy at that time of year. Most days were glorious with some welcome late season sunshine. But on a couple of occasions, without warning, a distant rumble of thunder would precede the arrival of storm clouds, the heavens would open and the gravel tracks around our rented villa would be transformed into rivers.
I was unperturbed – we’d driven there in a second-generation Land Rover Discovery and, even though driving on the wet clay tracks filled the tyre treads and gave them the appearance of racing slicks, I managed to get about thanks to traction control, four-wheel drive and the low-ratio gearbox.
One day I’d been congratulating myself on my driving skills and the Discovery’s ability to get through the quagmire when I heard the distinctive engine whine of a Cinquecento, the classic Fiat 500. It was the owner of the adjoining vineyard out to check on his vines to see how the grapes were coping with the welcome drenching.
“What a remarkable wee car” I thought as he chugged down the muddy lane without faltering. I couldn’t believe it when he then turned off the track and without missing a beat, headed down the field between the vines. A tiny engine, a lightweight car with skinny tyres, no four-wheel drive or low-ratio gears and it could perform almost better than my “best 4x4 by far”.
That was my first direct experience of the remarkable Fiat 500. My latest was just as interesting. The Fiat 500L Trekking isn’t just twice the size of the classic original, it has loads of ability built in, whether that’s to tackle the urban jungle or the real outdoors off the beaten track. In the same way that Mini took its very successful hatchback and created a range of variations on a theme, Fiat is now doing the same with its retro 500 and beating Mini on sales.
The extended version 500L is winning new customers to the brand and is now the third best-seller in its segment. Now Fiat has come up with a tougher version of the 500L which is aimed at people with an active lifestyle who want a car which is equally cool in the city and capable in the country.
The Trekking has 145mm of ground clearance, 10 per cent more than the standard version to allow some gentle offroading backed up with standard mud and snow tyres. Although it is only front-wheel drive, the Traction+ system improves handling on difficult or slippery surfaces by transferring torque to the wheel with the better grip. I tried it out on some grassy and muddy tracks and it took it all in its stride.
It’s available with a choice of two petrol engines – a 900cc two-cylinder turbo and a 1.4 litre – and two diesel – a 1.3-litre and a top-of-the-range 1.6-litre which was in the test car. They’re not for nippy acceleration but rather great all-round performance and superb economy with low emissions.
The Trekking drives well with excellent handling and its raised ride height gives a good view. Eye-catching styling features including protective underbody shields, visible at front and rear, diamond-finished alloy wheels, satin-finish inserts on the bumpers, side mouldings and door handles.
As with the 500L, the windscreen is supported by a two narrow A-pillars on each side. This offers near-360-degree visibility and does away with the blind spots caused by conventional thick A-pillars. The Trekking comes with loads of standard features and is the first Fiat to have as standard City Brake Control – which brings the car to a halt automatically if it senses a low-speed crash is imminent– but its biggest asset is space, easily fitting in five adults and luggage space for a suitcase for each of them. Shortly it will be followed by the 500L MPW (Multi-Purpose Wagon) which will be 20cm longer and with seven seats and the best ratio of interior space to overall length, including a boot size comparable with an average estate car.
In the rest of Europe the car will be know as the Living but that wasn’t considered right for the UK market so the powers-that-be at Fiat have opted for MPW instead. Many people in the know think 500XL would have been the obvious choice, but apparently there was some problem with that. Whatever the names, the latest 500s are doing a grand job in carrying on the proud Cinquecento tradition.
CAR Fiat 500L 1.6 Multijet 105hp Trekking
PRICE £19,590 (£21,740 as tested)
PERFORMANCE Max speed 109 mph; 0-62 mph 12secs
MPG (combined) 60mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 122 g/km