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Fiat 500 TwinAir

Fiat 500 Pop TwinAir

Road Test of the Fiat 500 TwinAir

Model/Engine size: 500 Pop TwinAir
Fuel: Petrol
Fuel economy combined: 68.9 mpg

Beating Spirit rating: 8/10

The Fiat 500 TwinAir has an engine with just two cylinders – so what on earth is it like to drive?

Downsizing is a popular trend with manufacturers today. Smaller engines are lighter and more efficient, which helps to achieve the all-important low CO2 and high miles per gallon targets, but this engine represents ‘extreme’ downsizing – surely there is a limit to how small you can go?

Actually, it’s not the first time Fiat has used a two-cylinder engine. The original 1957 Fiat 500 also had just two cylinders. A key difference between that engine and the latest incarnation is that in 1957 the two-cylinder unit only generated 13 bhp, whereas the new turbocharged 875cc petrol engine develops a much healthier 85 bhp.

Today’s Fiat 500 may be a small, light car, but even so, can a two-cylinder engine really work?

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The test drive was approached with some degree of trepidation. We’re well aware of how three-cylinder diesels perform, and we were expecting the TwinAir engine to possibly be even rougher and noisier.

You can therefore understand our sense of relief when the car was started and the noise didn’t damage our hearing. In fact, the car is incredibly quiet at tickover. The 500 has a Start&Stop system and at standstill it’s often difficult to tell if the engine is stopped, or if it’s just ticking over very quietly. This is highly impressive for a two-cylinder unit. The engine features a balancing countershaft which helps to reduce vibration.

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OK, so it’s quiet – but surely it can’t have sufficient performance? Wrong again. The performance is perfectly acceptable, and it even has good levels of torque available low down the rev range (145 Nm at 1900rpm). Indeed, the car is fun to drive. Because the engine has minimal internal friction, it spins up to speed very quickly – helped of course by its turbocharger. It feels revvy, and it’s easy to hit the limiter at around 6000 rpm. It can reach 0-62 mph in 11 seconds and go on to 108 mph.

TwinAir is a development of Fiat’s MultiAir engine – which optimises the air intake to improve performance and economy. The engine aims to combine the driving experience of a petrol engine with the emissions – and torque – of a diesel. And it has to be said that it largely succeeds.

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Compared to Fiat’s 1.2-litre 4-cylinder petrol engine, the 2-cylinder unit has 23 per cent more power, and 15 per cent lower emissions. And because the engine is so light, at just 85kg, the car feels even more nimble than the 500 normally does.

However we did find a slight tendency on a couple of occasions for the engine to feel as though it wanted to stall when pulling away from very low revs, and it certainly doesn’t like pulling off from standstill in second gear.

The Eco Button

The car comes with an Eco button on the dash. The main purpose of this device is to reduce the torque slightly – the idea of this is to make the car more driveable in urban environments. You may think that Fiat’s button that makes the steering lighter in cities has disappeared, but this feature is actually still engaged when you press the Eco button. You can certainly feel a difference when the button is engaged, but there is no huge drawback to the driving experience. However we’re not sure how many people are likely to use this feature.

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So the engine doesn’t deafen you or shake you to bits, and it’s very driveable. In that case, what about the whole point behind the idea? – the economy. The car is supposed to be the lowest emission petrol engine on sale in the world, with 95 g/km CO2, which equates to 68.9 mpg. This is impressive, but we have to admit that we didn’t achieve this figure. Careful driving on country roads resulted in around 55 mpg, but this figure fell much below this level in urban driving – even though the Start&Stop system seemed to work most of the time. It would be interesting to spend a longer period of time with the car and see what can be achieved.

Interestingly, the Dualogic 5-speed semi-automatic gearbox is actually more economical than the 5-speed manual; it posts an even lower CO2 figure of just 92 g/km, along with 70.6 mpg. It would make city driving more hassle-free, however this gearbox is £730 more than the manual. Fiat says that only 8-10% of people are likely to go for this option.

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Driving the Fiat 500

What about the rest of the car? Well, we really like the Fiat 500. You can’t argue with the characterful styling, and the packaging is excellent. Despite the compact external dimensions, you can genuinely fit four adults in the car.

It’s good to drive, it feels ‘nippy’, with fun handling, and it has very low running costs.

The only main issue that we have is the seating position. We can never quite get as comfortable behind the wheel as we would like. The steering wheel doesn’t adjust in and out, and the driver’s seat feels rather small, with the result that you feel slightly perched on top of it. This feeling is accentuated on long journeys.

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The ride is what you would expect from a car with such a short wheelbase – it’s never going to be as composed a long limousine. Similar comments apply to the boot space – the boot certainly isn’t huge, but this is after all a small city car, so if you need to fit the kitchen sink in the boot, consider an estate.

Fiat as a company has the lowest fleet average CO2 in Europe, at just 123.5 g/km for 2010. This is obviously helped by Fiat generally selling small cars, but it’s an impressive claim to fame nonetheless, especially as the company has already beaten the European target of 130 g/km due in 2015. In 2020 the target is 95 g/km CO2 – coincidentally the same figure as the 500 TwinAir emits today, ten years ahead of the target. Fiat says it invested 350 million euros into the TwinAir engine, so it shows that serious investment will be required by car manufacturers to achieve the CO2 targets.

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Fiat sees that customers for the 500 fit in with the label of being into ‘eco tech’, so the company is hoping that its investment will pay off.

The TwinAir engine will be available on all 500 models. Although the two-cylinder engine is currently only available as an 85 bhp unit, it will soon be joined by a naturally-aspirated 65 bhp version and a turbocharged 105 bhp unit.

Fiat says that as the engine is 23 per cent shorter than the 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol unit (and 10 per cent lighter), it is ideal to be developed as a hybrid, as there is space to add a (mild) hybrid system.

The Fiat 500 TwinAir gets a Beating Spirit rating of 8 out of 10. It’s a fun car to drive, it’s got real character, and with prices starting at just £10,665 for the Pop it’s cheap to buy, with low running costs. It’s also one of the few petrol engines to be exempt from the new regime of the London Congestion Charge when it comes into force in January 2011. It’s actually slightly more expensive than the 1.2-litre 4-cylinder petrol engine (at £9465), but the TwinAir does post better all-round performance figures. You can also have a 500 TwinAir for a deposit of £500 and just £199 per month. It went on sale from the 28th October.

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Road Test Review and Summary

The Fiat 500 TwinAir is indeed revolutionary, and it seems to work. It has good performance and it’s smooth and quiet. You can’t argue with the successful styling of the 500, and it has excellent packaging. It’s even fun to drive, is affordable and has low running costs. The official figures of 95 g/km CO2 and combined fuel consumption of 68.9 mpg are genuinely amazing for a petrol engine, our only disappointment is that we struggled to come close to achieving the claimed mpg figure. We look forward to a longer test to see if we can improve on our results.

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Fuel economy extra urban: tbc mpg
Fuel economy urban: tbc mpg
CO2 emissions: 95 g/km
Green rating: VED band A – first year £0
Weight: 900 Kg
Company car tax liability (2010/11): 10%
Price: £10,665 (From £9,465 to £16,655)
Insurance group: 11
Power: 85 bhp
Max speed: 108 mph
0-62 mph: 11 seconds

Also see our Beating Spirit Special Reviews of:
Fiat 500 0.9 TwinAir Dualogic
Fiat 500 1.3 16v Multijet Pop
Fiat 500C – Cabriolet soft top version