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.
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.
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?