Fiat came up with an absolute cracker when it designed the TwinAir engine. It is small, light, powerful, pulls well and is highly efficient, managing to extract all of these desirable qualities from an engine size of just 875cc and only a pair cylinders. It even makes a nice noise, in a throaty, thrummy kind of way.
The engine’s remarkable performance is a result of binning a normally essential component -- the inlet camshaft. This precision-ground rod usually carries out a crucial role, pushing open the valves that let in fuel and air as the engine turns. The TwinAir instead employs computer-controlled hydraulics to open and shut the valves, yielding incredible control over the engine’s breathing and its resulting power output.
The overall Fiat Group has wasted no time in slotting this perky little engine into as many cars as possible. You can buy TwinAir versions of the Fiat 500, Panda and Punto, as well as of the Alfa Romeo Mito and Lancia Ypsilon (the latter badged as a Chrysler in the UK).
The 500, Mito and Ypsilon are all positioned a cut above the hoi polloi, so it’s these three cars that we’ve compared, to see which TwinAir comes out on top.
While the 500 is aimed at chic urbanites and can be customised with various pricey options, it is still only a Fiat. As such it provides the cheapest entry point to our trio, starting at £11,960 for a manual “Colour Therapy” edition but rising all the way up to £16,810 for the designer “byGucci” edition with a Dualogic automatic gearbox.
The cheapest Ypsilon TwinAir is the manual SE at £13,195, while a top-spec Limited Auto is £15,695.
Alfa offers the TwinAir engined Mito in sporty Sprint or plush Distinctive trims, at £14,150 and £15,350 respectively. Alfa’s impressive twin-clutch automatic gearbox is sadly not offered with the TwinAir engine.
And finally the Fiat is also offered in open-top 500C format, with standard prices running all the way up to £19,810 for an auto TwinAir byGucci Convertible.
Best for pricing: Fiat 500
The Alfa Mito feels by far the sportiest behind the wheel, with a low-slung seating position and much better steering and brakes. It’s not the quickest of the three cars, however. In fact with a 0-62mph time of 12.5 seconds it is, embarrassingly, the slowest. The Ypsilon completes the dash in 11.9 seconds, while the 500 romps ahead with a time of 11 seconds dead. All three cars boast the same 85bhp and 107lbft of torque, so the difference is mostly down to weight, with the Alfa carrying 200 kilos more than the slim 970kg Fiat.
The Alfa might easily catch up on a real road, however, with the Ypsilon in particular feeling as secure in corners as a piano wedged up a staircase. The 500, meanwhile, divides the two -- feeling much less wobbly than the Chrysler but not nearly as surefooted as the Alfa.
Best for performance: Fiat 500
Comparing entry level cars, the Ypsilon and 500 both lack electronic stability control, which ought to be standard on any car never mind those with premium pretensions. It costs £325 or £320 to add respectively.
All three cars boast manual air conditioning -- climate control is an option for each. The entry-level Fiat lacks alloy wheels, a £130 option, and neither it nor the Chrylser can match the Alfa’s Bluetooth and cruise control, which come as standard.
None of these cars offer leather upholstery as standard -- it costs £1,000 for the Mito, £780 for the Fiat and isn’t available as an option for the SE version of the Ypsilon. Instead leather comes as a standard fit with the £14,495 Limited trim level.
Best for spec: Alfa Mito
The Ypsilon is the only car in our trio to offer a more accessible five-door format, whereas both the 500 and Mito are strictly three-door hatchbacks.
Boot capacities with seats up are 270 litres for the Alfa, 245 litres for the Ypsilon, and a pitiful 185 litres for the 500. Rear-seat headroom and legroom in the Fiat are fine if you haven’t got either a head or legs, while the Alfa’s rear buckets are more tolerable if a little claustrophobic. The Chrysler’s extra 7.5cm of height over the Alfa and 3cm over the Fiat help to make its back seats the most tempting of these three not-very-alluring choices.
Best for practicality: Chrysler Ypsilon
Official fuel economy varies only slightly across our trio of TwinAirs, from 67.3mpg for the Chrysler and Alfa to 68.9mpg for the Fiat. Real-world consumption is likely to vary much more with driving style than by make, but at least all are exempt from road tax and congestion charging with CO2 scores of 99g/km or less.
Insurance costs are likely to see a bigger spread, depending on the status of the owner. The Ypsilon enjoys the lowest 7E grouping and the Alfa a reasonable 9E rating. The Fiat 500 TwinAir, meanwhile, goes no lower than 10U. The E and U in these ratings refers to the car’s anti-theft security, with E meaning excellent and U unacceptably rubbish, earning the Fiat an extra-stiff premium.
Real quotes for a middle-aged Londoner came in at £610 for the entry-level Fiat 500, with the Ypsilon and Mito coming out in reverse of the expected order at £565 and £546 respectively. Your costs will vary.
Fuel and insurance pale in the face of depreciation, of course. With all costs totted up, running the Fiat 500 is likely to cost 30 pence per mile over 40,000 miles, the Ypsilon 33p per mile, and the Alfa 35p per mile.
Best for running costs: Fiat 500
While these three cars share an engine, they are strikingly different in ambience and appearance. Many buyers will choose on looks alone, with the Ypsilon offering an unusual avant-garde style, the Alfa a dose of traditional sporting charm, and the 500 a fashionable, retro-styled bubble.
In our reckoning, though, it’s the Ypsilon that has the least appeal, with only a small measure of extra practicality in its favour, stacked against poorer value for money and a woeful lack of composure on the road.
The Alfa is arguably the most tempting, but is let down by the mismatch between how fast it looks and sounds, and how fast it actually is. Who wants a car that’s all mouth and no trousers?
So it’s the Fiat 500 that gains our accolade as TwinAir of choice. It’s fast, frugal, stylish and capable -- as long as you’re not sitting in the back.