Blog : Fiat TwinAir – would Issigonis approve?

Keith Adams

Fiat 500 Colour Therapy (1)

First thing’s first. I’ve always had a soft spot for the nuova ‘nuova’ Fiat 500. I still remember the first time I saw one in the metal – in was 2007 and I was on holiday in Tuscany. Taking a day out to the coastal resort of Viareggio, I bumped into a local dealer’s display by the beach – and there it was, the new Fiat 500. It was finished in pearl white, and under the blue Ligurian skies and in the heat of August, it looked stunning. And I wanted one.

When I returned to the UK, I remember blogging this very subject, saying that seeing the 500 in that situation, it looked a million dollars, and subject to it working just as well in the UK, I really should go and buy one. As it was, that never happened, but the 500 went on to be a huge success globally – and in the UK – proving that for Fiat, the retro/modern hatch was a winner of epic proportions, especially now the 500L has been spun off it. And that car, as we know, would probably have been called the Fiat Multipla, had it been launched five years earlier.

The 500’s been thoroughly developed during its five-year production run. The addition of the novel TwinAir engine really piqued my interest, especially as it was both a good news story for history lovers – the original was also powered by a twin. But also, the TwinAir was a front-runner in the trend for downsized petrol engines, developed with economy and emissions in mind, without the need to resort to a filthy diesel. Then there’s the addition of the 500C to the range – the full-length roll-back roof panel might mean it’s not a full cabriolet in the conventional sense, but it gives people a choice, as well as reviving another historic favourite.

Thanks to Fiat GB, I’ve been able to borrow one in Colour Therapy form, combining both the 500C roof and TwinAir engine. There’ll be no MINI comparisons, though – mainly because until the arrival of the next-generation one, the British-made contender makes do with a conventional 1.6-litre four-pot.

We’re currently enjoying bitterly cold weather, so opportunities for roof-back motoring are naturally limited. But to be honest, even when the electrically operated panel is rolled back, it doesn’t really feel like proper open-topped motoring, like you would enjoy in, say, an MG TF. But then, that’s not the market Fiat’s going for. You notice the doorframes to your side and the structural components of the roof above you, and in reality, it’s more akin to driving a classic car with a full-length Webasto sunroof. Which isn’t that unappealing when it’s minus three in the sun.

Fiat 500 Colour Therapy (2)

Of course, the real reason for the appraisal of the 500C was to get behind the wheel of a TwinAir and see what all the fuss is about. Regular readers will know that I’ve been welcoming this move to more interesting engine configurations for some time – after  a couple of decades of everyone coming to the same solutions, the move to eco motoring has once again seen manufacturers moving in their own directions. As a consequence, we’re enjoying a period of genuine innovation and diversion in engineering. For Ford it’s been the novel modular ecoboost, which I enjoyed no end in the Ford Focus, for Toyota, it’s been Hybrid Drive, and for Fiat, it’s been the ‘Air engines.

There have been some moans from people on various Internet fora about the Fiat TwinAir’s poor average fuel consumption, but on the whole, feedback has been very good indeed. Jumping in and firing it up, there’s no escaping its twin-cylinder layout – it idles away noisily, rasping tinnily to itself when you blip the throttle, and reminds me of two-cylinder engines of times gone by. If you’re used to super-smooth modern four-pots, this will come as something of a culture shock, but compared with diesel, it’s an odd-beat and hugely appealing soundtrack.

Underway, the Fiat feels quick and responsive. Once you get used to the soundtrack, and simply accept that it will always sound busier and more vibratory than the actual revs its pulling. This is true especially at low speeds, but once acclimatised, you can just get on an enjoy this long-legged fun car. In eco mode, especially in this low-mileage example, performance feels leisurely, as it almost struggles to climb the rev range. But it does cruise quietly, and according to the trip computer, it’s capable of some impressive fuel consumption figures.

However, I preferred leaving it out of eco – where the car’s utterly transformed. Throttle response is keen, and power delivery is willing. And with such a thoroughly entertaining soundtrack, it’s almost impossible to end up not caning it everywhere, like a true Italian would. You might think that 84bhp and 106lb ft aren’t all that great shakes, but trust me – you’ll keep up with (and outdrag) must traffic in the real world.

And if that all sounds a bit unsympathetic, don’t worry – the engine loves to be thrashed. And that’s common to the other two twins I have extended experience of – the Citroen 2CV and 1950s Fiat 500. More good news is that it sounds like those classics, too – but with more insulation.

The five speed gearbox is a nice to use, although the ratios are a little oddly spaced – first and second are really short, while third, fourth and fifth feel like a threesome of overdrives. But strangely it works, proving responsive in town and settled on the motorway. Only on fast A-roads does it feel a little at sea, but then that could also be down to the steering and suspension settings which aren’t quite up there with the class-leaders.

I love the interior – the dash makes great use of body coloured inserts, which in our bright yellow example really add some joie do vivre. The seats are good, with a high, commanding driving position, while the equipment levels are generous, with a Windows-enabled infotainment system that actually works. The dial-within-a-dial main instruments work well, and are far less contrived than certain premium small cars, although it does feel a little on the narrow side.

Fiat 500 Twinair (1)

Dynamically, the 500C is not quite there, but I suspect most owners won’t make as big a deal of this as the road testers will. Fiat’s taken on board some of the suspension modifications made by Ford for the Ka (which shares the 500’s platform), but it doesn’t ride as well as a DS3 or MINI. But it does grip and corner ably, and unlike the Panda, won’t heel over at the first sign of a bend. Overall, though, ride and handling aren’t this car’s major selling points.

But that engine is a little marvel. I’m sorry to come back to it, but in many ways, this eager little twin is what really defines the 500 for me. Yes, back in 2007 I fell for the way it looks, but in 2012, it’s the way it sounds, feels and tingles that really mark this out as a chactacterful little car that I’d dearly like to stick on my drive (if ever there was room to do so).

The TwinAir puts 95g/km of CO2 and claims a combined fuel consumption figure of 68.9mpg. It also features a stop/start system that works well, and gives owners the opportunity to achieve some astonishing fuel returns if they have serious willpower with their right foot, and the patience of a saint. I didn’t, and ended up returning 43mpg by driving it like a Hertz rentacar picked up from Bologna airport on a Friday afternoon. It’s a shame that we’re stuck in mid-winter right now, because having just given (begrudgingly) the car back to Fiat GB, I really wanted to make better use of that folding roof. If only to hear that marvellous engine fizzing away just a little more loudly.

The title of this blog was meant to be controversial – especially on these pages – because I know many, many people bemoan the current generation of small cars as being bloated, boring and lacking in fun. Well, this Fiat certainly isn’t that. Many will also say that Sie Alec Issigonis would be a long way from approving of the way car design has gone in the past 40 years. But I suspect that the engineer in him would absolutely adore the new generation of small and efficient engines that have been making their way on to the market in recent years. I think he would also have loved to have a go at building a car that made true use of a TwinAir engine, packaging as tightly as possible, making full use of its compactness.

Could you imagine what he could have achieved today?

Fiat 500 Colour Therapy (3)

Keith Adams


  1. That Fiat 500 TwinAir is a marvellous little car. Italy should be proud.

    I can imagine Issigonis’ reaction to it, though!

    • Ah come on – I was driving it like I stole it. I bet a diesel car wouldn’t be more more economical in such circumstances, and a whole lot less enjoyable.

  2. Genuine innovation. We’ve been using the same basic propulsion mechanism for a century, about time!

    I’m keeping an eye on the next Twingo, which is going to have a rear engined layout, probably with a similar engine – the platform co-developed with Mercedes.
    The ‘UP! / WiiMii / Citigroup’ trio was due to have this layout too, before VAG chickened out and went for a familiar FWD front engine platform.

  3. I like it a lot- most shamelessly pseudo-retro cars such as the Bini and the New Beetle just look like they’ve been designed by a committee as concept cars, neither are remotely as well resolved as this little gem.

    I want one.

  4. This engine is a peach, that the pistons go up and down at the same time rather than stepped adds to its zingyness,the wife is pondering one off the NHS fleet,i wish she would hurry up!

  5. The TwinAir may be a great engine to drive, and is heartening to have a twin cylinder Fiat engine available, but what it isn’t is particularly economical in the real world, and it’s an extreme example of a car designed to give great number in the Euro CO2/fuel consumption tests that can’t be replicated in the real world.

    The 500 isn’t particularly small – its height makes it look shorter than it really is – and its massively bigger then the original. I think Issigonis, who was an inside out type of designer, would have preferred the Panda. He would have loved the original A Class as well 🙂

  6. I also doubt he would have been a fan of this engine in use. As stated above it is a triumph of marketing over reality…….. It may be great to drive but in real world use it is simply not economical and I suspect there are a lot of disgruntled owners out there…. At least the old A series engine delivered real world economy as did the K series.

  7. @9. Alexander Bucket,

    According to Wikipedia (so it must be gospel, right?) Frank Stephenson only oversaw the Fiat 500 rather than actually penning it.

    I’m not a fan of the Bini, although I find the basic hatch less offensive through familiarisation (that, and the fact that BMW has lauched some really grotesque chariacature variants in the meantime), I wouldn’t call any Bini well styled, certainly not in the seemingly effortlessly chic way the Nuovo 500 is- Fiat have absolutely nothing to apologise for with that car.

  8. Issigonis wouldnt have approved of a car as refined, safe,comfortable and well equiped as this little Fiat. The fact it is also a commercial success would have really floored him.

  9. @14 Maybe because it looks cuter than a MINI as well,i think i would have an Abarth in an heartbeat-for the sound it makes alone.

  10. The next stage would be for some enterprising chap or carmaker to clothe such downsized engines like the TwinAir or Ecoboost in a much smaller light body, maybe TVR should look into building a latter-day TVR Tina of sorts (with elements of Frank Costin’s aerodynamically efficient “TVR P5”) at the lower-end that is powered by potent sub-1.0 downsized units putting out 100+ hp.

    Am also keeping an eye out for the rear-engined Renault Twingo and hoping that it will be available as a 3-door as well as the RenaultSport version sticking with manual (with automatic as an option) unlike the larger Clio, since it seems like Renault and other carmakers are recently beginning to lose touch with what customers want.

    Do hope that at least one or two carmakers has the guts to build advanced 2-stroke engines during this period of genuine innovation and diversion in engineering, apparently aside from Ford / Orbital and Chrysler, Daihatsu is the most recent carmaker to look into petrol (and diesel) 2-stroke engines during the late-1990s / early-2000s.

  11. I simply cannot see 2 stroke complying with emmission regs however efficient they may be in most other respects. I think the rotary engine has more chance of production especially as an on board generator for a range extender hybrid.

  12. @14 Keith

    Of course, that £0 VED is a by product of the fuel efficiency that can’t be achieved in real life!

    The Mini was the 10th best selling car last year in the UK (excluding the Countryman), the 500 12th, but both heavily trail the Fiesta and Corsa, and if you add together the sales for the C1, 107 and Aygo, they would become the 6th best selling car!

  13. @16, Nate,

    Agree re tiny kit cars. Although most ‘Lotus 7 inspired’ kitcars already come with the option of fitting a lightweight highly tuned motorbike engine which may possibly be as light or lighter than the TwinAir- I don’t know.

    Re 2 strokes, traditionally these have been very ‘dirty’ engines- can they be made to run as clean, or cleaner, than a 4 stroke? And can they run without a fuel additive, which I’d imagine would not necessarily be familiar to casual drivers, eg hiring a rental car in the Med?

  14. @ 17 Adrian888 & 19 Chris Baglin

    Every few years I keep hearing about advanced direct-injected 2-strokes engines making a return with the benefits of modern technology and while no carmaker has yet actually committed to producing such engines, the same was said about rear-engined rwd cars like the Twingo and UP! (until the latter was switched at the last minute to a front-engined fwd configuration).

    It terms of kit cars, I was thinking of something like a smaller more accessible Ginetta G40 (in the mould of say the Imp-based Ginetta G15, the stillborn Project Kimber or another Gordon Murray interpretation of a modern-day Kei-Car-based Austin-Healey powered by downsized engines with technology derived from his T.25 / Type 25 project.

    Even though some cars have used motorbike engines (like the BMW 700 and stillborn Moto Guzzi Innocenti Mini), I’m under the impression that a lot of work needs to be done to both the engine and gearbox to make such engines drivable / useable for cars.

  15. Modern eco-petrol engines need a sympathetic driver, the engines need to be coaxed to enter and then remain in lean-burn fuelling mode to deliver nearer to their quoted figures, this means running with the throttle in a steady near-constant position, whenever the driver alters the throttle pedal by even a small amount the ECU drops out of lean-burn and a recalculation of ignition and fuelling settings for the engine load takes 10 to 15 seconds to achieve.

    Instrumentation such as an LED to indicate when the engine is in lean-burn and instantaneous mpg gauge on the instrument panel as on the 2000 -2006 Honda Insight are key to learning how to get he best from a fuel efficienct car

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