If you’ve seen adverts for the Fiat 500 TwinAir you’ll be under the impression that this is an eco-special. That only tells half of the story because hidden under the bonnet is a surprise that could melt the heart of even the most hardened petrolhead.
First of all let’s deal with the question of image. The Fiat 500’s retro design is a wonderful interpretation of the 1957 original but it is not what you’d call a bloke’s car, it’s a bit … dare I say it … girly. However, choose the right colours and you can give it a more masculine presence and this test car fits that bill quite nicely. The paint is Electroclash Grey metallic (£440 option) with gloss black roof and spoiler (£180 option) and satin black 15-inch alloys. It’s still lacking the rear-view presence of a typical hot hatch but it’s far enough from the cutesy 500 image that a few observers thought it was the sporty Abarth 500.
Go On Then, Pop The Bonnet
Lift the 500’s stubby bonnet and you’re greeted by an 875cc petrol engine with only two cylinders, just like the original 500 but with twice the capacity. By modern standards this might seem like extreme downsizing but two cylinders means less internal friction and when twinned with a Stop&Start system it allows the TwinAir to achieve a diesel-matching EU economy figure of 68.9mpg.
With a turbo strapped to the tiny engine the 500 TwinAir offers 85bhp and 107lb/ft of torque. Not a lot, you may think, but factor in the 500’s low kerb weight of 930kg and there’s more pace on offer than you might expect.
Two Cylinders? What’s It Sound Like?
Turn the key and the TwinAir settles into a slightly lumpy idle, with a ‘put-put’ beat reminiscent of the classic 500. It’s an unusual sound for a modern engine, far away from the characterless hum of the common four-cylinder engine. I couldn’t help but smile when I heard it for the first time.
Once you get moving and start to stretch the engine you really start to appreciate the noises it can make. It’s loud on full throttle, building to an angry wail with a cheeky rasp as you approach the 6,100rpm red-line. It’s as if someone worked out the best bits of the old 500’s character and then added a sporty undercurrent with some modern-day exhaust tuning. It’s an unexpected pleasure and encourages you to make the most of each of the five gears.
At low-speed the 500 pulls away like a scolded cat, making the most of the torque dished up by the turbo. In real terms it’s not a fast car, with a 0-60mph time of 11 seconds and top speed of 108mph, but it feels quicker than those figures suggest, a sensation magnified by the rorty exhaust note.
Once out onto the open road the 500 is eager to please, building speed rapidly. The ride is soft and there is some body roll to contend with but if you wanted flat cornering and a firm ride you’d go for an Abarth 500. Undulations in the road surface can set off a slight bobbing motion from the suspension, but that’s a characteristic you’ll find in many small cars.
Grip is high considering the low-resistance 185/55 tyres and you can put your foot down early on corners and roundabouts, wait a fraction of a second for the turbo to spool up and then feel the 500 pull away cleanly. The advantage of having only 85bhp is that there’s no messy scrabbling from the front, no wheelspin or interference from nannying electronics – the 500 always makes the most of what it’s got.
The 500 is also happy to cruise at motorway speeds as the TwinAir engine provides enough power to mix it with the big boys in the fast lane. At cruising speeds the exhaust settles down to a background hum, although that tends to make the wind noise and tyre roar more noticeable. The steering is a little fidgety, thanks in part to the short wheelbase, so it’s not a relaxing mile muncher.
My main criticism of the 500’s driving experience is the steering. It’s one of those electrical systems that varies the assistance depending on speed, but unfortunately it varies from sneeze-and-you’ve-crashed at low-speed to sneeze-and-you’ve-changed-lane at high-speed. It is very light, too light, and devoid of any real feel. You turn the wheel and the nose follows but there’s precious little feedback. It won’t appeal to keen drivers but it makes parking and manoeuvring in tight spaces a doddle.
What’s That ‘Eco’ Button Do?
Economy is the big selling point for this car and that official figure of 68.9 mpg brings with it CO2 emissions of just 95g/km. That places the 500 TwinAir into Band A of the VED tables and that means a free tax disc. Paying nothing for your tax disc is one of life’s Good Feelings.
Sadly, when you’re making the most of the TwinAir’s power and acoustic abilities you’ll find the mpg figures start to stray a long way from those promised. If you’re really pushing on 40mpg will be a challenge and even if you back off the pace you’ll be struggling to beat 45mpg. With a 35-litre tank that means frequent visits to the fuel pump.
That is where the dash-mounted Eco button comes in. Press the button and you’ll instantly feel a drop in power, the exhaust note calms down and you start to see the mpg figure going up. In this mode I managed 53mpg, a long way from the claimed 68.9mpg, but it means the tank range increases to a more useful 400 miles.
As is so often the case in life you don’t get something for nothing and what you gain in economy you lose in spirit, almost as if the 500 had been taken to the vet for that ‘little operation’. It’s still reasonably nippy but at motorway speeds or on hills it can start to feel strained.
The Eco button gives you something of a dilemma. You know you’ll use less fuel if you press it but you’ll have much more fun in full-fat non-eco mode. It really does become a test of your willpower and if you’re going to enjoy the wonderful noises that the TwinAir makes then you’ll have to accept that you’ll be seeing a lot more of your local fuel station.
Fortunately I do have a bit of willpower. By making use of the Eco button in rush-hour traffic and switching it off when the road cleared I was able to squeeze an average of 49.1 mpg in the week I spent with the 500. Not too bad at all.
What’s The TwinAir Like Inside?
Open the door and you can’t help but notice the bright red leather seats and door trim (£775 option). A silver section of plastic runs the length of the black dashboard while the speedo, rev counter and orange-on-black instrument display sit inside one circular unit behind the wheel.
Standard equipment includes MP3-compatible CD player with audio input, bluetooth connectivity for mobile phones with steering-wheel controls, automatic climate control as well as electric windows and mirrors. The interior is mostly hard plastic but the chrome ‘500’ logo, leather steering wheel, red seats and silver trim help to lift the atmosphere.
Space in the front is good, with plenty of room for heads and legs. The driver’s seat adjusts for height but sadly the steering wheel is only height-adjustable so you may have to compromise on your preferred driving position. Move to the back and tall passengers are going to feel cramped but the good news for parents is that you can fit bulky child seats in the rear. Boot space is also adequate for the car’s size, enough for a trolley-load of shopping.
Anything Wrong With It?
There’s little to pick fault with. The lack of rear cabin and boot space could be a problem for some buyers but this is a small car – it’s not intended for a family and all of its clutter.
One minor irritation was the height adjustment lever on the driver’s seat. It’s too close to the handbrake and on a few occasions I reached down and found my seat moving up as the car rolled backwards.
The Stop & Start system proved to be a bit erratic. It did work but sometimes it would restart on its own, but that could be an intentional feature. The biggest fault was that once, in the middle of busy city traffic, it failed to restart itself three times in a row. I had to turn the engine off and restart it myself and from that point on I used the dash button to disable the system.
There is a premium of around £1,000 for the TwinAir engine, although some of that is accounted for by a more generous specification. If you’re buying one thinking that you’ll recoup that premium in fuel savings you may find it takes longer than you were expecting.
The Final Reckoning
One of the slogans for the Fiat 500 TwinAir is ‘Everyday Fun’ and that really does encapsulate the spirit of this car. The 500 was already a fun car to start with and the TwinAir engine takes that to another level.
Don’t buy this car expecting it to live up to its credentials as an eco-warrior. You’re going to need the patience of a saint and the willpower of a Shaolin monk to get anywhere near the quoted figures. Ignore the Eco button and unleash the fizzing ball of TwinAir energy, listen to its distinctive tune and go nipping at the rear bumper of much bigger and more powerful cars. You’ll have fun, you really will.
The Fiat 500 TwinAir is packed full of character thanks to its retro charm and distinctive engine and that counts for a lot when you’re looking for a small car that’s fun to drive. Too many cars are bland transportation devices – the Fiat 500 TwinAir is much more than that. It really is a great car and it’s a shame there aren’t more like it.
Fiat 500 TwinAir Plus Specifications
|Top Speed:||108 mph|
|CO2 Emissions:||95 g/km (Band)|
|Official MPG:||68.9 mpg|
|Actual MPG:||49.1 mpg|
|Price (as tested):||£14,095*|
Fiat 500 TwinAir Plus Scores
|PERFORMANCE||Wonderful engine makes most of its 85bhp||8|
|HANDLING||Light, nimble, grippy but chassis not best||8|
|AFFORDABILITY||Could be cheaper but spec is good||7|
|DESIRABILITY||Retro looks, fun character, great engine||9|
|DRIVING SPIRIT||It really is a gigglesome little thing||9|
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* Prices taken from Fiat website, November 2011.