Driven – Fiat 500 TwinAir

In the world today, Green is the new buzzword and nowhere more so than in the automotive industry. Given that the green revolution has only properly existed for the past decade, the rate at which some car companies are downsizing and building cars that consume and pollute less is quite astounding, leaving many automotive enthusiasts in despair that the sports cars we know and love may one day be the outlawed dinosaurs of decades past.

But don’t fear, because a dawn is slowing rising on a new automotive era, and the future isn’t necessarily bleak for us petrol heads. I know this because I’ve just had a ball driving the new Fiat 500 TwinAir, a car that satisfies even the most vicious environmentalist with but two cylinders and a total capacity of 875cc.

Say what? Anyone who’s ever been unfortunate enough to drive a similarly endowed Diahatsu Mira of the early 90’s will instantly object, but the key to this puzzle lies in the twenty years of technological development that’s taken place since we gladly voted the two cylinder micro-car out of our country. Believe it or not, but the 500 TwinAir is arguably more technologically advanced than many of its bigger brothers from nearby Modena and Maranello. For starters the tiny twin utilizes an advanced turbocharger which boosts low down torque, and combines it with Fiat Powertrain’s 15-years-in-development MultiAir technology, which is a new electro-hydraulic valve management system that reduces fuel consumption by controlling air directly via the inlet valves without using the throttle. The inlet valves are not actuated by a camshaft, but rather by solenoids which can individually open and close each valve, which in conjunction with the fuel injection systems optimizes the mixture to obtain the perfect burn. Not only that, but special low friction coatings on all internal components means the TwinAir rates as the best engine in the world as far as friction losses are concerned. 

It’s not a cheap engine to manufacture, but the numbers speak for themselves – 85hp, 145nm of torque available from 1700rpm, 0-100 in 11 seconds and a top speed of 173km/h. It’s actually faster than the 1400cc 4 cylinder 16V 500, and all this from just 875cc and two cylinders. And its official fuel consumption is just 4.1 l/100km, bettering the greenie pop star Prius by a significant margin without the environmental hazard caused by its batteries. The official fuel consumption figure is always a little optimistic, but the 500 TwinAir easily achieves 5-6l/100km in real world driving.

But its real value isn’t in the hard facts; the TwinAir oozes personality and this is where it shines. It’s the fun, happy car its styling suggests and somehow this frugal little engine reinforces that. A twist of the key and the TwinAir fires up with a delightful twin cylinder rasp that’s eerily similar to that of the original 500 from the 50’s. Unlike most eco-cars it loves to be revved and actively encourages you to drive with con brio, rewarding you with a unique growl when you work it into the better half of the rev range, making you giggle with eco-joy as you tear around suburban streets with six and a half thousand on the dial.

But the TwinAir has a split personality, and will happily play responsibly when you ask it to. Selecting Eco mode changes the engine map, gives you a little less power and torque, lightens steering weight and is a great way to save fuel around town and in traffic without noticeably impacting performance. Knocking the manual shifter into neutral and letting the clutch out when stationary activates the engine start-stop function, which automatically starts the engine again once you depress the clutch to select first gear. The in-dash co-pilot monitors engine performance and suggests when to change gear to maximise fuel efficiency. Co-pilot taught me that achieving redline doesn’t necessarily give the best economy and it encourages you to make the best use of the TwinAir’s torque by changing up early and down late, the computer determining, for example, that holding third gear at 1700rpm up a steep hill was the most efficient way when I probably would have dropped back to second. Dare I say it, but driving the Twin Air to achieve maximum possible efficiency becomes an enjoyable sport in itself.

That hill really surprised me though, because when a break in traffic opened up and I decided to ignore co-pilot, with two people on board the little 500 still had enough in reserve to pull all the way to redline. It easily accelerates to and cruises at highway speeds, and the ride is supple around town whilst remaining flat through tight twisty roads and composed across mid corner bumps, the little twin singing as you downchange for tight hairpins.

And as I folded my over 6 foot frame into the back seats without too much of a struggle, the true value of the 500 became apparent. This premium small car would be the perfect accomplice for the urban life of one or two fun loving people. Technology enables the tiny twin cylinder engine to easily substitute for a larger four, and if anything it only enhances the character of the car. I think this is the direction eco-cars need to take. People aren’t yet ready to substantially alter their lives in the pursuit of serious environmentalism, but they’ll embrace it if you give them a way to incorporate it into their current lifestyle, subtly imbedding it into their mindset.

And what about us petrol heads? Well just looking at how this new technology has been implemented into this eco-car makes me realize that the sky is the limit for its application to the sports car. There will always be a place for fast, fun and involving cars, and these sorts of technologies are only going to make them better and more interesting for us, whilst still keeping the legislators and greenies happy. That’s a win-win situation.

Words and photos by Andrew Coles

It’s the little details that always make a car, seen here on the 500’s windscreen wiper arms.

And the innovative ideas, such as the storage bins under the seats…

… and the combined oil filler/dipstick.

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  1. Tom Gilbert October 4, 2012 Reply

    Ah, storgae bins under the seats. Now THAT'S where I left my sandwich.. Good read. And excuse my ignorance but "con brio"?

    • Andrew Coles October 7, 2012 Reply

      Thanks Tom! And yes, Con Brio is as Viano mentions below. It's the only Italian I know...

  2. Viano October 4, 2012 Reply

    "con brio," in Italian, would be loosely translated into English as "with verve." But it means more than that: it contains elements of vivacity, liveliness, confidence, vigour, energy, dynamism, all wrapped together with cheeky confidence.

    A bit like what you get in a sporty Italian car, don't you think?

  3. Mal October 4, 2012 Reply

    Wondering whether any comments or thoughts were available on the auto (dualogic) version of the car ?

    • Andrew Coles October 7, 2012 Reply

      Hi Mal, I haven't actually driven a dualogic, although I'm told they work just as well with the TwinAir, possible event better than the manual. I'd be interest to drive one myself, I'll see if I can tee something up :)

    • Jez June 1, 2013 Reply

      I just bought a Fiat 500C with Dualogic and I have to say it works a lot better than I thought it would. There's a bit of juddering in low gears, but that's a known common quirk with any robotised manual transmission. I have no complaints about it myself, the car really is grin-inducing and the TwinAir just begs to be revved.

      I haven't even tried the manual mode yet, the default auto on the Dualogic works that well.

  4. Mik April 18, 2013 Reply

    The little 500 won me over... I took one for a test drive to compare it to the Mini Ray (One) 1.6 and I couldn't believe how much more fun I had in the Fiat 500 Twin Air! I really thought the Mini would have it licked but in real world driving i.e city streets with pot holes, speed humps, rutted round-abouts and a good freeway stretch the little Fiat was so much more involving, fun and characterful. The little twin turbo engine is just plain addictive. It took everything in it's stride and begs you to play around and get involved. In comparison the naturally aspirated Mini felt dull, let me explain... You don't have to drive the Fiat at 10/10ths to have a ball whereas the Mini you do and when you do on anything but smooth roads the Mini is too harsh and begins to get wearing so you naturally back off the chasis is capable of a lot more power (hence the Cooper S) it would be like sticking a VW 1.2T engine into a Porsche 911, or being Usane Bolt and only allowed to wear gum boots when sprinting. The Fiat on the other hand feels like it glides over the road instead and there's more movement in the chasis so it feels alive. The surge from the little turbo engine punches from idle all the way up to red line! Its not a hot hatch but more usable in the real world which is 99% for most people that don't visit race tracks. I highly recommend you take one for a test ride before you purchase anything else because you might regret your buy if you happen to be lucky enough to experience the 10/10 fun factor and the black one IMHO is the coolest, looks like it means business, Grrrrrr...

  5. Karen Freeman April 15, 2014 Reply

    I really enjoyed reading your article together with the pictures. I have just bought a Fiat 500 Twinair and really love the car. If you drive it with the Turbo and the Eco button switched off, it really isn't that economical but is really fun! I did however have a clutch judder in reverse which ended in Fiat having to replace the clutch under warranty. But despite this, I would recommend these characterful little cars to everyone

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