July 27th, 2011

Driven: Fiat 500C TwinAir

The Fiat 500 is not new news, but stop! (collaborate and listen) there is something in this certain 500 that makes it harp back to its predecessor more than some retro glad rags - the engine.

Powering this certain Italian throwback is not your standard four-cylinder engine but a new two-cylinder, just like the original 500. But there are a few vital differences. This new engine has a capacity of 875cc instead of 479cc, it’s cooled by H2O not O2 and has a monstrous 85bhp in comparison to the originals 13bhp. But what is interesting about that last power figure is that it is more than the 1.2 four-cylinder that is also offered in the 500.

So how does this tiny two-pot manage to get more power and torque than something punching with two more pistons? Well, it is all to do with timing and airflow.

The two-cylinder has new electro-hydraulic valve management system that the boffs at Fiat have spent a lot of time getting right. This new system controls the air flowing into the engine through the inlet valves rather than the traditional throttle valve. Airflow is managed constantly and changed to suit the drivers’ needs. There is also a turbocharger bolted on that increases maximum torque as well as making it available at very low revs so the engine doesn’t fizzle out. This turbo means that there is 145Nm of torque on tap at 1900rpm, as opposed to the 102Nm at 3000rpm of the larger 1.2 engines.

So this mighty two-cylinder, which Fiat claim world’s cleanest petrol-powered engine, must be the saviour for hybrid-haters, right? With 23 per cent more power and a 15 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions compared to a bigger 1.2 you would think so. But there is a catch. The headline figure of 68mpg which Fiat has been selling this car on can be a bit misleading.

Over our week long-test I struggled to get close to 68 miles per gallon, with my best being 58 miles per gallon on a 150 mile trip where I drove one notch below hypermilling. But when I was driving normally it would dip easily into the high 30s and low 40s, which is way off of the claimed figures.  Even when turning on the cars ECO button, which cuts the engines torque by 45Nm to 100Nm at 2000rpm, I still had no luck.

The Gear Shift Indicator (GSI) is another ‘driver assist’ designed to minimise fuel consumption but it doesn’t seem to be configured properly with this particular engine. It is a fairly common system which uses arrows on the 500’s Cyclops friendly instrument binnacle to tell the driver the most efficient point to change gear. However the arrow to change up is too keen and asks you to change up way before the turbo has kicked in at 1800 revs and if you obey the hallowed indicator light you are left in the grumbliest and most uncomfortable part of the rev range.

But this car does have a trump card over all the other Fiat 500’s in the range - the way it sounds. Being a two-cylinder it has a very unique tone that confuses your eardrums. It is a mish-mash of sounds that I asked a number of people to try and identify. I got answers ranging from a sewing machine, to a chainsaw, to a TVR.

Now I am not sure about the last one but the sound goes through a range of noises depending where it is in the rev band. From 0 to about 800 revs it has the put-put of a go kart pulling away, but form 800 to 3000 revs it changes to a moped thrum and when the turbo is working it has a Honda ricer-esque note to it. This intriguing soundtrack adds a bit of character to this cheeky little car. If it had an exhaust which gave off the occasional parp and pop it would be near perfect (are you listening Abarth?).

So what’s the two-cylinder like on the road? Absolutely no hassle at all. If  you gave the car to someone who didn’t know what engine it had in it, they would be perturbed by the initial sound but once in the higher revs they would think it was a ‘normal’ four-pot as the refinement is similar. Even when you are in ECO mode the car does not at all feel under powered and can easily handle trips on the motorway – just be prepared to take a massive hit on your MPG. With 0-62mph happening in 11 seconds and a top speed of 107mph the TwinAir has more than enough performance for a city car.

The car handles just like any other 500 with a comfortable ride, light steering and a surprising amount of front-end grip. There is hardly any wind noise in the cabin… that is until you pull back the cloth cabrio roof, which we had fitted on this 500C.

If there is one feature that compliments the fruity two-cylinder engine it is the cloth roof. A feature first seen on the Nuova 500 in 1957, having the ability to peel back the roof and let the wind pass through your hair and the engine to putter away freely in your ears is a driving experience which instantly brings a smile to your face. Now I know there is an assumption that the 500 is a bit of a girls car (which I buy into as the rack on the massive steering wheel is so light and the clutch rest is only made for size four Ghillies) but once you have given the 500C a go you may at first feel a bit like Joey Essex in his ‘Reem Machine’ but once you have fired up the engine and been through a few bends you don’t really care.

We tested a car in lounge spec which is in the middle of the spec range. It adds split-folding rear seats, body-coloured electric door mirrors, 15-inch alloy wheels, USB connectivity and a leather multi-function steering wheel to the package and costs £15,500, which is a tad pricey but the TwinAir range does start at £11,100.

So if you are in the market for a Fiat 500 should you go for a two-cylinder? Well if you want to really get into the retro feel of the 500 I would say the two-cylinder is a must, and tick the box for the convertible while you are there. But what the two-cylinder adds over a conventional four pot is character, something the 500 thrives on. The only thing to be wary of is that 68mpg figure. You will have to drive by breathing on the accelerator pedal to get that kind of figure, but can you put a price on character and an exciting engine note? I don’t think so, so in my opinion it is worth it.


Words: Rowan Horncastle

Photos: Rowan Horncastle

Video and Editing: Callum TomsJames Kelly and Rowan Horncastle

For a full set of photos of the Fiat 500C check out our Flickr page here

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