I’ve never been a dedicated follower of fashion. When it comes to clothes, I’ll always err on the side of comfort. I’m also unlikely to jump on a bandwagon, choosing instead to wait for the next wagon, even if means I stand waiting in the rain like a sad chump.
It’s a similar story when it comes to popular culture. If a television channel constantly plugs a new show or insists on using the phrase ‘live and exclusive’, I refuse to watch it, choosing instead to catch it when it comes around on ITV4 or Dave. I’m also one of the rare members of the human race who doesn’t own a copy of an Adele album.
Fashionable cars don’t float my boat either. If a car becomes trendy, I simply switch off and refuse to entertain it until the hype fades away. A former Spice Girl or ‘Jenny from the Block’ will do little to make me change my mind. This is PetrolBlog after all.
So the Fiat 500, despite the plaudits and numerous accolades, has never really featured on my radar. I’ve read the reviews and seen the awards it has received, but it’s never been for me. I did have a brief go in the Abarth Esseesse last year, but was left feeling a little cold. The overriding impression I felt was that it was trying just that little too hard to impress.
And you’ll forgive me for getting straight to the point on this, but the 500 TwinAir is a brilliant little car. No two ways about it, the ten days I spent in the company of the 500 were amongst the best I’ve experienced with a car. Allow me to explain.
If I was to try and capture the 500 TwinAir in a nutshell, I’d say it was a wheezing, spluttering, coughing and schizophrenic buzz box. Hardly a glowing reference, but seriously, the world needs more cars like the 500 TwinAir. Sadly you could probably count on one hand the number of mainstream manufacturers who would have the balls to build something like this. In fact, it’s only the Italians who could probably get away with it.
The heart of the TwinAir is undoubtedly the tiny two cylinder 0.9 litre turbocharged engine. Fiat makes a big thing of it being the cleanest petrol engine in the world and with a CO2 figure of just 95, there’s little to doubt its green credentials. You’ll pay no road tax with the TwinAir and can march into London without registering on one of Boris’s congestion cameras.
It’s such a characterful engine that wheezes, splutters and coughs in equal measure. Just don’t let its measly sub one-litre 85bhp fool you into thinking that the TwinAir is a mere town car. As a petrolhead, you’ll find it impossible not to become totally and utterly addicted to driving this thing at the limit. On a B-road or dual carriageway, it’s an absolute riot to drive. It’s not a drivers’ car in the purest sense, but its frantic and almost chaotic nature is intoxicating. It’s quite unlike any other car I’ve driven.
On a B-road it relies on grip rather than handling to deliver its thrills, but mastering the art of carrying speed through corners becomes addictive. It reminded me a great deal of my old Daihatsu Cuore Avanzato, lacking only the Box of Frogs’s 4WD system. An engine that produces a mere 85bhp may not sound like a lot, but you need to give the engineers a huge amount of credit for getting so much out of a two-cylinder sub 1-litre engine. You also need to factor in the fact that the 500 TwinAir weighs in at just 930kg. Not far from the fabled 100bhp-per-tonne figure.
In my extended ten day test, I gave the 500 TwinAir a real workout. It was thrown into action from the outset when, thanks to the helpful people in the Fiat and Skoda press offices, I was able to collect the car from the Giulietta launch in Oxfordshire. I naturally took the opportunity to test it on the sublime B4494 from Wantage to Newbury, a classic drivers’ road. What immediately became apparent was how delightful the gearstick’s close proximity to the steering wheel is. In the 500, the stick sits high up and parellel to the base of the steering wheel, enabling quick changes and encourages you to drive up and down through the gears. It’s a testament to the car’s character that even though it’s not the most satisfying of ‘boxes, it becomes a delightful thing to use. I put this down to its positioning in the car and a delightfully stubby gearknob. Good work, Fiat.
The experience on the B4494 suggested that the ride and handling can be best described as characterful. The ride is bouncy and the steering is clearly set up for town driving, rather than dawn raids. But let’s not forget where this car is designed for. A B-road takes the TwinAir away from its city-centre comfort zone, so having the ability to raise a smile on a twisty road should be seen as a bonus.
Once I cleared Newbury, I was onto the dreadfully dull combination of the A34 and A303. You’d think that dual carriageways would expose the 500’s city car set up and to a certain extent, you’d be right. The engine note begins to grate when at motorway speeds and it’s the one time you wish it had a sixth gear. The short first and second gear also make charging away from roundabouts quite tiresome as, no sooner has the TwinAir built up some momentum, you lose a little though the gear change. But once up to speed, it doesn’t seem to struggle to keep up with faster moving traffic.
In fact, it makes for quite a relaxed and refined long distance cruiser. A couple of days after the trip back from Oxfordshire, the 500 was pushed into action for a 150 mile trip to Southampton Airport. An early flight meant that time was of the essence, so I had to choose between the refined comfort of the Saab or the nippy delights of the 500. The Fiat was chosen, not least because the country was in the midst of a mild panic about fuel shortages. A economical city car made more sense than the lumbering 9000.
Two and a half hours after setting off, I arrived in Southampton and parked the 500 in the short stay car park. I naturally had to park alongside a Barchetta. The 500 was a perfect partner for the airport dash. Never once feeling out of its depth on the A303 or M27, I arrived relaxed, composed and feeling like I’d had a good drive. More kudos points to the Fiat.
It scored highly again the same evening when I arrived back at the airport with 3% battery left on my iPhone. With no music and no ability to call home, the drive home was looking desperate. But the 500’s Aux/USB port, part of the optional Blue&Me system, saved the day and the phone was charging within seconds of leaving the car park. Once on the move, I used the Bluetooth connection to call home and settled in for the long drive back. I got back at midnight, feeling like I’d had a mini adventure. And all this in a car that isn’t built in Cowley.
But if the drive had been fun and a convincing demonstration of the 500’s ability to be a genuine allrounder, it did expose one of the 500 TwinAir’s major weaknesses – fuel economy. If you have a moment, do a quick Google for ‘Fiat 500 TwinAir fuel consumption’ or ‘Fiat 500 TwinAir fuel economy’ and you’ll find a stream of owners complaining that the claimed figures are nothing like the real world fuel economy. Fiat claims 68.9mpg on a combined cycle, but the average taken from the 900 miles I completed during my test was 40.9mpg. Worse still, the first tank returned just 30mpg although admittedly this included the dash to the airport.
Other than the airport run, the majority of the test was conducted using a combination of rural roads and city driving. This should have given the car a chance to match the official estimations, but it didn’t. I think it’s notable that other than the technical spec tables, the TwinAir’s brochures make no reference to the car’s economy, choosing instead to focus on emissions, noise and performance.
The fact is, you won’t see anything like Fiat’s claimed figures and will need to factor this into your cost of ownership calculations. In fairness, the dashboard readout was accurate to within 0.2mpg during my test, so that’s a positive.
It also needs to be pointed out that half the problem is down to the fact that the 500 TwinAir is such a riot to drive. Believe me, you will want to squeeze every last drop of fun out of the car and this ultimately bring the economy down.
Strange as it may seem, I can forgive the 500 TwinAir’s comparatively woeful fuel economy. This partly down to the car’s character – it just feels so alive and so engaging. In fact, it even feels a little rough around the edges, with some cheap fitting parts on the interior and its traction engine-cum-lawnmower-cum-blender-cum-leaf blower soundtrack. But this all just adds to its appeal. I defy anyone who, after spending some time in the car’s company, doesn’t believe the Fiat 500 TwinAir has a soul. It has personality and character in abundance.
As you’d imagine, there one or two shortcomings, starting with the interior.
It’s a real mixed bag. On the one hand, I love the clean and simple layout and consistent circular design features on the likes of the dials, speakers and controls. I also like the combined rev counter and speedo with the central display putting all the information you need in one place. But having the seat adjustment lever right next to the handbrake is just plain daft. I have visions of people being thrown backwards each time they attempt to put on the handbrake.
I’d also question the long term durability of the interior, with the leather on the driver’s seat already showing signs of wear and the aforementioned cheap switches. The most notable being the heater controls which have about as much quality as one of the lids you used to get on a packet of Choc-Dips.
I could criticise the slightly cramped footwell, narrow cabin and lack of headroom, but to do so would be to forget that this is fundamentally a small city car. So instead I’ll applaud its dimensions and declare the 500 TwinAir as a miniature hero. A modern-day eco warrior.
I drove the standard £11,660 TwinAir, which comes manual air conditioning, radio/CD player, 15″ Matt Black alloy wheels, folding rear seats, seven airbags and ISOFIX child seat attachments. This test car had a few extra goodies, such as the excellent Blue&Me hands free media and phone system. At £270, it’s an essential upgrade. I also like the standard fit black alloys which do a very good job of giving the 500 a less cutesy appearance. In fact, the full PetrolBlog red and black combination would get my vote.
Whether you see the 500 TwinAir as a second car or your main form of transport, you’ll love it. What’s more, you can buy it under ‘green pretence’, claiming you’re doing your bit for the planet and the family finances. The pretence only needs to last until you’re safely around the corner from your home street, whereupon you’ll be grinning from ear to ear and revelling in the TwinAir’s brilliance.
The Fiat 500 TwinAir. A fashionable cracking little car.
Fiat 500 TwinAir
- Pint of milk: it will sit outside begging to be driven and you will oblige: 8.
- Filling station forecourt: it’s fashionable and cutesy. Perhaps too much so?: 7.
- You don’t see many of those: 1,200 or so as of the end of 2011: 6.
- Bangernomics: yours for £11,600. Middle of the road score: 5.
- Petrolbloggyness: against the odds, it has PetrolBlog appeal: 8.
- Total for the Fiat 500 TwinAir: 68/100.
Details of scoring can be seen here.