Published on Sunday 8 December 2013 23:58
Ten Second Review
With an innovative two-cylinder engine, Fiat's 500 TwinAir slashes carbon dioxide emissions to just 95g/km and fuel economy is rated at a heady 69mpg. This two cylinder engine claims to be the cleanest petrol powerplant in the world. Best of all, you still get a relatively punchy 85bhp and the 500's cheeky styling. We're constantly being pressurised to tighten the purse strings but Fiat proves it needn't be too onerous.
It's fair to say that the Fiat 500 TwinAir offers an ingenious solution to a very simple remit. Lowering running costs, consuming less fuel and emitting less carbon dioxide is a formula that manufacturers of small cars have been working to for years now, but the gains have often been marginal, mere incremental improvements that pick at the easy wins and do little to push vehicle engineering on.
Fiat sees things differently. With the innovative TwinAir engine, the Italian company contends that not only can you enjoy low cost, clean motoring, but that you needn't do it in a car that relies on battery packs or which would struggle to show a bike courier a clean pair of tailpipes. In fact, so pleased is Fiat with the way its innovative little engine has meshed with the ethos and character of its smallest car, the union has spawned a sub-range called, simply, '¿TwinAir' featuring bespoke styling touches, new colours and extra kit.
As in all the best shampoo commercials, this is the science bit. Forget ProRetinol B5 and never mind the Boswelox, the Fiat 500 TwinAir features something a whole lot cleverer. In the past, engine designers have concentrated on optimising the fuelling of an engine, such that we've moved from carburettors to electronic fuel injection and then to common rail architecture and direct injection. The other half of the combustion equation, the management of air into the engine has attracted less attention. The 875cc 85bhp 1.3-litre TwinAir uses the same technology pioneered on Fiat's MultiAir engines, replacing the camshafts of a four-valves-per-cylinder engine with electro-hydraulic control of the inlet valves, allowing the engine to breathe more efficiently.
On the road, the 500 TwinAir feels brisk enough, getting to 60mph in under 11s and on to 107mph. Push the two cylinder engine hard and it gets rather vocal, but around town refinement is more than acceptable. Two driving modes are offered '' Standard and Eco. In Eco, torque is restricted from the normal peak of 145Nm to 100Nm and the steering lightens up, which makes low-speed manoeuvring even easier. There is a noticeable change in engine note at 2500rpm, the powerplant clearly working harder as the TwinAir system does its thing.
Design and Build
Unlike other 500s powered by the TwinAir engine, the TwinAir trim range cars (coupe and convertible) get a satin chrome finished grille and black alloys along with a rear boot spoiler, chrome-ended exhaust pipes and are available with a '¿piano black' roof. Inside, that satin chrome finish makes another appearance on the dashboard and there are part-leather sports seats.
Otherwise, the TwinAir has same beautifully pared-back look and feel of other 500 models, with little to remind you that this 500 is something a little out of the ordinary. The dashboard at first seems to have prioritised style over substance, but like all good designs, it gets the job done without any undue excess. The rear seats are relatively token, but the boot offers enough space for the weekly shop. Given that the 500 TwinAir will be largely used as a city scoot and often as a second, or even third car its diminutive dimensions will more often than not be a plus than a minus.
The build quality feels decent with surprisingly sturdy controls. Any doubts about the mechanical integrity of the complex TwinAir engineering should be laid to rest by the fact that it uses a similar technology to Honda's impeccably reliable VTEC system, insofar as it uses engine oil as hydraulic fluid in a rugged and elegant solution that's not overly expensive to build.
Market and Model
Unlike many rivals, which offer just one 'green' model in their line up, usually accompanied by poverty-spec wheel trims and basic trim, Fiat offers the MultiAir engine across the full gamut of trim levels. The TwinAir trim range, however, gets that little bit more. The standard model gets 15-inch Total Black alloys, sports kit, stop-start and electric mirrors as standard. TwinAir Plus spec gets 16-inch wheels and adds air-con, leather steering wheel with radio controls, fog lights, brake assist and hill holder systems.
There's also the option of the Dualogic robotised manual gearbox which allows for clutchless gearchanges just by nudging the gearstick up and down a sequential 'box. Seven airbags and anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution help the 500 to a EuroNCAP five-star rating.
Fiat offers the optional Blue&Me infotainment system, which features wheel-mounted and voice-activated control for the stereo, as well as logging your driving style for peak efficiency. A Blue&Me Tom Tom touchscreen system integrates navigation and phone functions in a neat, removable package.
Cost of Ownership
It's hard to argue with the bald facts. Compared to the best-selling conventional 1.2-litre petrol engine in Fiat's 500 range, the TwinAir offers 23% more power and yet delivers a 15% reduction in fuel consumption and emissions. Yes, Fiat charge you for that privilege, but the asking price isn't exorbitant and in some cases the additional costs could be recouped very quickly. As well as incurring zero road tax costs due to its 95g/km emissions, the 500 TwinAir is also exempt from London congestion charge fees. It's probably not the sort of car we'd recommend to those covering higher mileages but it works extremely effectively in traffic, its Start&Stop system making queuing a curiously serene experience. A combined fuel economy figure of 69mpg won't be seen in the urban sprawl and crawl but you should still see a number around the high forties.
Residual values of 500 models in general have held up very well and the TwinAir looks set to be the engine that sparks the highest demand, combining as it does the running costs of a diesel with the perkiness of a petrol.
Working smarter rather than harder is something we can all buy into and Fiat's 500 TwinAir is a big step forward in the evolution of the city car. Although the technology might appear impenetrable, the end result of more power, lower fuel bills and lower emissions isn't hard to digest.
Coupling this ingenious engineering to a package that's as appealing as the Fiat 500 results in one that can't really fail. We've heard promises of these 'cake and eat it' solutions so often that we can be excused for being more than a little sceptical, but here's one that delivers on its claims.
Although we'd recommend the bigger 100bhp 1.4-litre engine if you're set on covering larger mileages, the dinky TwinAir powerplant covers all the bases for city driving. Making economies often means going without some of the things that put a smile on your face. Here's one budgetary measure that bucks that trend.