Renault launches a compact MPV (multi-purpose vehicle) based off of their C-segment Mégane. Even though the Japanese have experimented in this segment before, with cars like the Nissan Prairie and Mitsubishi Space Wagon, the continent belatedly goes wild for this extremely practical format once Renault puts their twist on it. Imitators quickly come from other European brands. The enthusiasm feels a lot like that during the launch of the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager just over a decade prior in North America. Like the American minivan, however, the European compact MPV’s popularity begins to wane in the 2010s in the wake of the crossover. Despite this, Fiat launches yet another compact MPV, the 500L.
Fiat is losing market share in Europe and it can no longer muster more than 1 million units annually on the continent. The 500L, a fresh new entry in a declining segment, will not keep the brand afloat. Fiat’s savior is more likely to be the related 500X crossover. In the US, 500L sales are falling well below the numbers posted annually by the Mazda5 during that similarly-sized MPV’s run.
Like almost every other European brand, Fiat offers European buyers a choice between a compact MPV and a converted delivery van. In Fiat’s case, there are two: the Qubo and Doblo. The 500L, also available in a 7-seat derivative not seen in North America, serves as a replacement for the Punto-based Idea and the ungainly-but-capacious Multipla. But MPVs are a slowly dying breed in Europe as replacements come in the form of crossovers. Peugeot’s 5008 MPV will become a more conventional crossover in 2017, while Opel is also following suit with its replacement Meriva and Zafira. For those who want van functionality instead of crossover style, converted vans like the Qubo may soon become the only option.
Some automakers have tried, but the compact MPV never really took off in North America. It didn’t even take off in Canada, a market slightly more receptive to such ideas. If the American minivan could ever have been considered compact, it very quickly outgrew that size as Grand Voyagers and Grand Caravans began to outnumber regular-length Voyagers and Caravans. As for true mini-minivans, Mazda’s 5 is dead, Chevrolet’s Orlando was only sold in Canada before it was axed, and Toyota’s Prius V and Ford’s C-Max seem to only be holding on by dint of their hybrid powertrains.
With Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler and the formation of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), you could consider both the pictured 500L and Grand Voyager to be Mopar minivans. Although cars seem to be getting bigger and bigger, the 500L still sits in the shadow of even the regular-length, first-generation Voyager: it’s two feet shorter, two inches narrower, although it sits one inch taller. If you want a new, practical family-hauler and you loathe crossovers, you should probably buy a 500L while you have the chance. In North America, it’s one of very few choices you have. In Europe, it may soon be the same story.
Photographed in Hipódromo, Mexico City.