Fiat's answer to combating emissions and fuel consumption is smart, small and perfectly formed. Jonathan Crouch takes a look at the improved 500 TwinAir range.
With its innovative two-cylinder petrol engine, Fiat's 500 TwinAir has always been notably frugal and clean in 85bhp guise. These days, there's a pokier 105bhp engine option too and a package of well-judged 500 range model updates. Does this trendy little citycar still makes sense?
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. There are now two versions of this unit, offering either 85 or 105bhp. Now that other brands are introducing downsized petrol engines into the citycar segment, does the Italian brand's technology still stack up?
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 0.9-litre TwinAir unit 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 certainly feels brisk enough, even in 85bhp form getting to 62mph in 11.0s and on to 107mph. Go for the 105bhp version and those figures improve to 10.0s and 117mph. 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.
Fiat would've been unwise to mess with the 500's shape too much, so sensibly, they've kept exterior styling tweaks to the minimum with this improved model. As before, there's a single three-door bodystyle, though you can order it in soft-topped '500C' form if you like the idea of having an electric fabric-folding roof. As for those design changes, well up front, there's a sleeker chrome grille that sits below revised headlights and is positioned at more of an angle than before. Between these two elements are smarter daytime running lights, with a shape that echoes the zeros of the '500' logo. Rounding the front off are updated chrome trims and a ribbed bonnet that that looks a little more stylish. At the rear, there are smarter tail lights that incorporate a body-coloured panel in the centre. This has meant the reversing and fog lights have moved from the clusters to the lower rear bumper. Your Fiat dealer will also offer you a more fashionable choice of wheels, graphic packages and paint colours to round off the updates. Inside, the biggest change is the inclusion of 'Uconnect' infotainment systems on all models, although only the top 'Lounge' variant is fitted with a touchscreen as standard. Redesigned air vents flank the screen, leading to a much more integrated feel than you'd get in many more expensive cars. Drivers will also appreciate the smarter steering wheel with its chrome-plated switches. Plus, if they're in a plush 'Lounge' model, they've the benefit of an optional 7" TFT instrument cluster. The 185-litre boot remains as before, no bad thing as this still trumps many rivals.
Prices for fixed-top 85bhp 500 TwinAir models start at around £13,000, so you're looking at having to find a premium of around £1,300 over the more conventional petrol unit in the range, the 69bhp 1.2-litre entry-level unit. There's a substantial £2,500 model-for-model premium to find if you want the open-air pleasures of the 500C soft-top derivative. The least you can pay for one of these with TwinAir power is well nearly £16,000. The pokier 105bhp TwinAir engine only comes as an option on the top 'Lounge' trim level where it will cost you from around £14,500. Equipment very much depends on your choice between 'Pop Star' and 'Lounge' trim levels. 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. So what do you get for your money? 'Pop Star' spec includes air conditioning, 15-inch alloy wheels and heated mirrors with body-colour caps. Top 'Lounge' spec meanwhile, gets you a panoramic glass sunroof, rear parking sensors, a chrome front grille, front fog lights, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and a Uconnect 5" LIVE touchscreen infotainment system with smartphone integration. If you want to go further, then your dealer will want to tell you about the latest range of so-called 'Second Skin' decal packages.
It's hard to argue with the bald facts. Compared to the conventional 69bhp 1.2-litre petrol engine in Fiat's 500 range, the 85bhp TwinAir unit 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. 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. The CO2 return of 90g/km and a combined fuel economy figure of 74.3mpg for the 85bhp model won't be seen in the urban sprawl and crawl but you should still see a number around the high forties. Go for the 105bhp TwinAir powerplant and your running costs aren't hugely affected, rising marginally to 99g/km and 67.3mpg. These are for fixed-top models. There's no reduction in these returns if you go for the 500C soft-top. 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 in this improved Fiat 500, Fiat's two cylinder TwinAir engine has proved to a big step forward in the evolution of the citycar. Although the technology might appear complicated, 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 105bhp version of this unit if you like a little more performance (or maybe occasionally need to travel longer distances), the standard 85bhp 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.