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Fiat's little TwinAir turbo packs punch

PUBLISHED: 18:28 05 March 2011

Little softie: Fiat's 500C convertible.

Little softie: Fiat's 500C convertible.

Fiat

Fiat's new TwinAir turbo engine in the retro 500 is fun, frugal and the future, says Andy Russell.

It is said that all the best things come in little packages, and that is the case with the latest addition to the Fiat 500 range.

One of the cutest compact city cars on the road, it now boasts a new engine that’s a little cracker – packing a big punch from its small capacity.

You might think that putting a two-cylinder engine in a Fiat 500 is like paying homage to the original 1957 13bhp model of 1957, and down to nostalgic sentiment – but it’s more about the needs of the 21st century car owner and an attractive way to downsize and cut fuel consumption and exhaust emissions without sacrificing power or enjoyment.

The new hi-tech 875cc TwinAir engine makes do with two cylinders to minimise friction and uses a highly-efficient air intake system to make it the world’s cleanest production engine – owners do not pay annual vehicle excise duty and it’s also exempt from the London congestion charge.

But don’t for one minute think this TwinAir model is going to be dull to drive just because it sips fuel like a diesel. With it being turbo charged it produces a healthy 85bhp, more than many four-cylinder petrol engines half as big again, and revs freely. Fiat will also produce a 65bhp normally-aspirated version and a more powerful 100bhp turbo version of the TwinAir – outputs virtually identical to the long-serving 1.2 and 1.4-litre Fire petrol engines which also see service in the 500 – along with a 1.3-litre turbo diesel.

The TwinAir features the same technology as Fiat’s more powerful, fuel-efficient four-cylinder 1.4-litre MultiAir engine, a worthy engine of the year class winner, and I was smitten the moment I fired it up.

Costing £1,200 more than the equivalent spec 1.2 but £200 less than the 1.4 and a whopping £1,200 less than the diesel, the little twin is fun and has a lovely charismatic engine note when you wind it up – I simply couldn’t help it which probably explained why I averaged only 50mpg in mixed driving! Fiat claims nearly 69mpg on the combined cycle.

It also didn’t help that I rarely used Eco mode which cuts the available torque in city driving to save fuel, along with the standard Stop&Start system to cut the engine in stationary traffic, and lightens the steering for easier manoeuvrability. Take Eco mode off and it unleashes its full potential, revving sweetly and able to hit 70mph in third without any signs of strain – in fact it gets smoother and sweeter as the revs rise. The downside of this little twin is that it can feel a little ‘lumpy’ at very low revs.

Despite its small capacity this is not an engine you need to work hard to make good progress – not that it’s a hardship – for it boasts a lot more low-down pull than the four-cylinder 1.2 but it comes at 1,900 rather than 3,000rpm and it cruises surprisingly easily and quietly at 70mph at around 3,000rpm.

The ride becomes bouncy on poor roads but that tends to come with the territory of small cars but it never becomes uncomfortable and you’ll excuse it for the agile, sure-footed handling. The convertible version of the 500 seems to drive as well as the hatchback and that’s down to solid roof pillars which keep the body rigid so there’s no flexing.

The full-length fabric roof, including the glass back window, slides back and folds electrically in three stages to give open-top motoring but without too much buffeting and, let’s be honest, this little convertible with the roof down is more about poodling and posing than blasting along motorways. With the roof in place it’s quiet and refined.

The 500C, which costs £3,000 more than the equivalent hatchback, seats four and adults won’t feel cramped in the back provided those up front forego some of their legroom but sitting in the back I found my hair – and there isn’t a lot of it any more – brushed the roof when it was up. The boot isn’t huge at 185 litres but will take a couple of medium suitcases and the rear seat back folds for longer loads – one-piece on entry-level Pop, 50/50 on other models.

And you’ll love the retro feel of the fascia with the big single-unit speedo and rev counter surrounding the driver information panel, and logical, well-placed controls.

All 500Cs come with air-conditioning, electric front windows, radio/CD/MP3 player, electric power steering, remote locking, seven airbags including one for the driver’s knees and anti-lock brakes. Lounge adds Blue&Me hands-free phone system with USB port, rear parking sensors, foglights, stability control and hill-holder, 15in alloy wheels, electric/heated door mirrors and upgraded trim and chrome body kit. For those who want more luxury there is a 500CbyDIESEL special edition.

The Fiat 500 may be a blast from the past but the new TwinAir engine is very much the future, giving more from less.

FIAT 500C 0.9 TWINAIR LOUNGE

Price: £15,265 (TwinAir hatchback from £10,865, TwinAir convertible from £13,865)

Engine: 875cc, 85bhp twin-cylinder, turbo petrol

Performance: 0-62mph 11 seconds; top speed 108mph

MPG: Urban 57.6; extra urban 76.3; combined 68.9

Emissions: 95g/km

Benefit-in-kind tax rate: 10pc

Insurance group: 15 (out of 50)

Warranty: Three years or 60,000 miles

Will it fit in the garage? Length 3,546mm; width (excluding door mirrors) 1,627mm; height 1,488mm

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