The Fiat 500 is arguably the most stylish supermini on the market. This Twinair edition delivers the looks and the driving kicks of the standard versions but promises greater economy and lower emissions. We took it for a spin to see whether its tiny two-cylinder engine lives up to the eco hype, or whether its rivals provide better overall value for money.
There’s no denying the Fiat 500 is an attractive car. Its compact size, curvaceous body and swanky modern-retro styling never fail to impress. If anything, it’s almost too attractive. Thousands have fallen for its charms since the car’s launch and now it’s almost impossible to venture outside without seeing several dozen of the things pootling up and down high streets the length and breadth of the country.
The 500’s petite dimensions negatively affect the car’s practicality. It’s a four seater, but rear passengers blessed with the gift of normal height may find their heads pressed up against the c-pillar and their barnets ruined by the low ceiling. Up front, there’s plenty of room. The car is wide enough to accommodate front-riding passengers in comfort, and there are plenty of cup holders and cubby holes to stash keys, cash and hot Italian beverages should you so wish.
The boot is tiny, however. 185-litres of space isn’t a lot to play with, so those with baby buggies or large shopping loads will struggle. The rear seats fold down to offer up to 500 litres of space, but this really isn’t as generous as it sounds. You’ll need to be an expert in space management to get the most out of this car’s luggage area.
Performance & handling
The 500 Twinair ditches the 1.2- and 1.4-litre petrol engines of the standard cars in favour of a petite 875cc two-cylinder offering — inspired by the tiny engines in the 1957 Fiat 500. The loss of cylinders doesn’t reduce power too dramatically, however, as the engine makes use of a turbocharger to boost output to a fairly respectable 84bhp.
Firing it up, we were pleasantly surprised by how refined it is. It’s does a decent impression of a vacuum cleaner when pushed hard, but for the most part, it’s not a far cry from the 4-cylinder petrol engines in non-Twinair editions. Around town, it’s rapid enough when it needs to be, though you will have to work the engine quite hard to compensate for the paltry 145Nm of torque and the widely-spaced gear ratios. It’s possible to drive the car without stressing the engine, but often it can feel as if it’s barely ticking over and on the brink of a stall, particularly if you hit the Eco button, which limits torque to just 100Nm.
0-62mph occurs in a fairly pedestrian 11 seconds, and it’ll do 108mph at a push, which isn’t too shabby, considering. It’s actually quicker, on paper, than the original 1.4-litre and current 1.2-litre petrol models, though you’ll need to be quite hard on the engine to achieve these numbers.
Handling is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the 500 Twinair is very responsive and go-kart like in its behaviour, responding well to being thrown around. On the other, the suspension is rather firm, so expect a jiggly ride that makes speed bumps feel like Mt. Everest.
The car comes with a start-stop system as standard, though it’s one of the worst examples of such a system we’ve come across. It handles the stopping portion of the equation rather well, but starting again often seemed like a lottery. We found we had to mash the clutch into the carpet with a passion usually reserved for stomping grapes in order for it to respond to restart requests. Overall, it made driving the car around town so annoying, we ended up switching the thing off.
Economy & environment
The 500 Twinair’s trump card is its high claimed economy and low emissions. Fiat reckons the car will return 68.9mpg on the combined cycle and CO2 emissions of 95g/km, which means it’s road tax and congestion charge exempt.
In reality, the car wasn’t quite as frugal as its official numbers may suggest. We found ourselves achieving economy of just 35mpg around town, which rose to 42mpg when cruising on the motorway. Perhaps the surprisingly low return was down to our driving style, but try as we might, we couldn’t get anywhere near Fiat’s numbers. Others on Fiat’s own forums have reported similar problems getting anywhere near the claimed economy figures.
Equipment & value
All 500s come with Fiat’s Blue&Me information and entertainment package. The system, co-developed by Microsoft, allows the driver play music via a USB port and to control a number of features using voice alone. It’s possible to adjust music playback, skip forwards and backwards through playlists, select music by genre and artist, and it’ll even read your text messages aloud so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road.
Sadly, the voice recognition system is quite unreliable — particularly when there’s lots of road noise going through the cabin. We often found ourselves shouting instructions at it to no avail, often in colourful language. The system can be controlled using old-school buttons on the steering wheel, but the user interface is so convoluted, you may find yourself turning the whole thing off and cruising in silence.
The 500 is compact, but it’s tough. The car scored a five-star Euro NCAP rating for adult occupant protection and three stars for child occupants. It comes with electronic stabilty control as standard, front seatbelt pretentioners, driver, passenger and side airbags, as well as a driver knee airbag.
The Fiat 500 Twinair is fun to drive, despite its smaller engine. It pulls well, provided you’re willing to give the engine a thorough workout, and offers responsive, go-kart like handling, though you’ll need to slow right down to traverse speed bumps.
In our hands, it wasn’t as economical as official numbers suggest, suggesting you may need a pHd in hypermiling to extract decent mpg. That said, the Twinair is a decent alternative to the standard petrol and even diesel variants, particularly if you need a low-emissions car that’s exempt from road tax and London’s congestion charging.
Model tested: Fiat 500 Twinair
Engine: 875cc petrol
Acceleration: 0-62 in 11 seconds
Top speed: 108mph
Emissions: 95g/km CO2