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Fiat 500 TwinAir review (2010 onwards)
We like - exceptional performance to economy ratio, impressive vibration control, usual Fiat 500 cuteness, recently updated driving experience
We don't like - two-cylinder noise is a challenge, 500C has rear visibility issues, Start&Stop not as finessed as some rivals, 500C has rear visibility issues
The Fiat 500 TwinAir may not look like anything out of the ordinary, but it boasts The Greenest Gasoline Engine in The World. Ever. Try 95g/km CO2 and under - yet 0-62mph in 11 seconds flat.
Fiat, understandably, has sky-high hopes for popular success. And in pairing this kind of ecological performance with the slickest, most emotive city car on the market, that seems like a no brainer.
However, the 500 TwinAir achieves these remarkable feats principally thanks to the engine behind that retro front valance having just two cylinders, and a tiny capacity of 875cc.
Yep, you read that right: the TwinAir is a two-cylinder engine. It's also the first motor designed from scratch to utilise Fiat's fuel-saving MultiAir technology, has start-stop as standard and, in this particular guise, a turbocharger.
But it is still quite some leap of faith to bring a twin-pot to bear on the modern car buying public. Didn't this kind of shenanigans go out with the 2CV?
As it happens, not quite - the Tata Nano has only two cylinders, too. Not the most ringing endorsement. But so did the original Fiat 500, so there is some historical resonance here, especially with the current 500 looking like it does.
Don't be fooled - this is no kind of sentimental exercise. Even if we do have to question whether Fiat would have gone down the two-cylinder route without the original, the TwinAir is an ultra modern, high technology power unit.
Looking at the exterior, there is no way to tell a TwinAir equipped 500 from its more ordinary brethren - which could be a mistake. Wouldn't you want the rest of the world to know you're driving what Fiat's calling the reinvention of the petrol engine?
On the inside the only difference is the Eco button, which replaces the City button on the dashboard; as well as increasing the power steering assistance at parking speeds as usual, Eco remaps the engine. We'll come back to this.
Start the TwinAir up, and it's immediately clear that you aren't driving an ordinary petrol engine. The noise is more apparent on the outside, but it makes a very distinct puttering sound, before settling into a near silent idle.
Impressively there is near zero vibration. Traditionally amassive issue with two-cylinder vehicles, Fiat has solved the problem with a substantial balancer shaft. The TwinAir is, it claims, smoother than a four-cylinder as a result.
It's a positive first impression. And there's little to complain about once you get going, either. This 85hp TwinAir Turbo sits in the middle of what will eventually be a three version line-up, with 65hp non-turbo and 105hp turbo coming to sit either side of it.
The 85hp variant produces 106lb ft of torque at just 1,900rpm, compared to just 96lb ft at 4,250rpm from the existing 100hp 1.4 petrol, giving it much more immediate responses.
Although there is occasionally the merest flutter of turbo lag, the result is a tiddly engine that's super perky around town and at least as capable on the motorway as any other small city car.
Ride and Handling
Not much change from a regular Fiat 500 here, although the two-cylinder engine is at least 7kg lighter than anything else in the range so it's even more resistant to understeer.
The 500 now benefits from a chassis set up similar to that of the platform sharing Ford Ka, resulting in a less brittle ride - so you're less likely to get bounced off the road at speed - with improved grip and feedback.
The short wheelbase and relatively tall roofline mean it does get a little bit rolly-polly at times, but generally speaking the enhanced handling adds another facet to the 500's all-round persuasive charm. This is now very much a fun car as well as a cute one.
The increased power steering assistance is handy for low speed manoeuvres, but you wouldn't want it like that all the time (it resets to normal over 28mph). The five-speed gearbox could be more precise.
Again, 500 business as usual on the inside - the same sweet-like buttons, the same body-coloured dashboard panel, the same remarkably Mini defeating interior space. Build quality is on the cheap and cheerful side.
Returning to the unusual engine noise, this will take a bit of getting used to. The TwinAir is quiet at a cruise and at idle, but under acceleration the car sounds almost broken to the uninitiated - with half the normal number of cylinders this is not a surprise.
Oddly the convertible 500C seems to deal with the sound better than the hatchback - and that's with the roof closed rather than retracted (when you'll have a job to hear anything over the wind noise).
Generally speaking, Fiat has done a stunning job of redressing the difficulties involved in refining a two-cylinder engine. In most circumstances your passengers simply won't notice the difference. Nuff said.
Economy and safety
But the real genius of the TwinAir is the low emissions: just 95g/km CO2 with the manual gearbox, or 92g/km CO2 with the Duologic automated manual gearbox (which we didn't get to try on launch).
This translates into official combined fuel economy of 68.9mpg - amazing for a petrol engine, but still not quite as good as the 500 diesel, which claims an official 72.4mpg combined.
Promoting frugality around town the TwinAir is equipped not only with Start&Stop but also the Eco Mode button. This knocks the torque back to just 74lb ft at 1,750rpm in order help save fuel.
It makes the car feel noticeably less responsive, which is fine in theory but may encourage you to work the engine harder to make progress; it will be interesting to evaluate the real world economy of this versus the diesel as a result.
Start&Stop is fine in theory - but no matter how much testing Fiat says its done the system isn't as smooth as rival products, tending to fluff the restart where others simply spring alive and go.
Safety has always been a Fiat 500 strong point, however, and the TwinAir is no different. Seven airbags come as standard, as well as stability control, and it has five Euro NCAP stars (based on the pre-2009 testing regime).
MSN Cars verdict
The Fiat 500 TwinAir is a remarkable thing. Look at the specification on paper and it just doesn't seem to make sense - tiny, two-cylinder engine, fantastic economy and emissions yet plenty of performance, too.
But out on the road this 85hp version gives away almost nothing compared to the four-cylinder 100hp 1.4 the 500 already offers, should be massively more economical, and is currently unique in the market place.
Question is, will customers understand the point of it? Pricing is yet to be revealed but the TwinAir is unlikely to be much less than the 95hp diesel - certainly it is in no way a budget model - confusing the specification/reality situation still further.
We like it. It suits the 500's quirky charm. Whether it will work as well in other small Fiats is another matter, but the engineering and the risk involved in launching such a radical rethink of petrol power deserves every plaudit.
|Need to know|
|Engines, petrol||875cc two-cylinder turbo|
|Power, hp||85 (65 and 105 to follow)|
|Torque, lb ft||106|
|0-62 mph, secs||11.0|
|Top speed, mph||107|
|CO2, g/km / Tax, %||95 / 10|
|Ratings||Fiat 500C TwinAir|
|Ride & handling||***|
|MSN Cars verdict||****|
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