When it comes to small cars, you have to admit, the Italian’s have always been pretty good at it. And nowadays, while virtually every manufacturer has a small car in their range, very few really stand out from the crowd in terms of looks and style. When Fiat introduced the new 500, it was the first real small car to rival what BMW had created with Mini in the style stakes. Unlike the ‘new’ Mini, the 500 payed a lot more homage to its ancestry – both is size and shape, not just making a car that was cool and appealed to younger drivers, but almost made it like the ultimate fashion accessory. Its design was classed in the same league as other iconic designs like the iPod, Fender Stratocaster Guitar, and Coca Cola bottle. And now, they’ve just upped their game again.
On paper, I’ll be honest, this car doesn’t sound like its going to set the world alight. Under its bonnet lies an 875cc turbocharged two cylinder engine, linked up to a five speed gearbox. Fiat’s new TwinAir engine is expected to soon account for almost a quarter of all Fiat 500 sales, and is planned to be introduced to other models across their range in the near future. This bodes well for drivers as it currently sits in the lowest tax and emissions banding, meaning that it is just over €100 to tax per year, and if you’re a London resident, you become exempt from the Congestion Charge in the city.
Externally there’s nothing to distinguish the TwinAir from any other 500 model, bar the fact that this particular car is the limited edition ‘Matt Black’ dressed in a very cool matt black bodywork and is wearing black 16 inch wheels. The first thing you notice about the TwinAir is the buzzy burble from the engine. Its kind of hard to describe, but it sounds great, nothing hairdryer about this engine, despite its diminutive size. Inside, the roomy cabin is rather quiet. There’s no squeaks, no rattles, it doesn’t feel like a cheap car. Pulling away it becomes immediately apparent to me, that this engine is punching well above its weight – there is virtually no turbo lag and its very rev happy. It feels much nippier than the 1.2 litre 500 I drove a couple of years ago in Italy, and getting the TwinAir out onto the motorway, I surprised at just how refined everything stays in the cabin. At 120km/h the little engine is sitting just on 3,000 rom and there’s only a small amount of road noise coming through from the tyres. The one other aspect that impressed me was just how planted it felt at motorway cruising speeds – I’ve been in similarly sized cars that often felt twitchy, almost like they could get blown away by a decent sidewind, but the Fiat felt solid and like a much bigger car on the road.
The cabin of the 500 feels pretty spacious, with tons of leg room for the passenger, although the rear seats aren’t for the tallest people in the world. For the young twenty/thirty somethings this car makes so much sense. Parking up is a doddle thanks to its short (3546 mm) length and great steering lock, and while the boot space may not be huge, there’s enough room between it and its rear seats to carry a sizable enough load. My car was equipped with a fully integrated sat-nav and Fiat’s Blue&Me mobile and MP3 player connectivity (which is standard on most models). The Interscope sound system sounded great and the ability to plug your iPod directly into the car’s USB port and control it from the steering wheel makes life nice and easy.
Around town, the Fiat is an absolute hoot to drive, its light steering and very responsive engine will put a smile on your face everytime you’re in it. I did tend to develop a little bit of heavy foot when driving it, not that I was looking for more power, quite the opposite in fact – the output from the engine matched to a small car really does result in a genuine ‘fun to drive’ experience. It feels like there’s a lot more under that bonnet than there actually is, so much so, that on several occasions I was having to remind myself that this is only an 875cc engine – it shouldn’t make sense, but it does. It makes a lot of sense actually, especially for city drivers. The start-stop engine goes quite a way towards saving petrol, although I must admit that sometimes it can get a little annoying in traffic (the ability to turn the function off, like in other cars would be a useful addition). And on a handful of instances, the system got a little confused as I was clutching in as it was trying to stop the engine. Its no big issue, restarting the engine is as simple as just pushing the clutch pedal – a small niggle, but a niggle nonetheless. On the dash, you also have an Eco button, which when pressed, cuts maximum torque down by 45Nm to 100Nm at just 2,000rpm. Its not a huge drop, and is virtually unnoticed in city driving, but does improve consumption and also makes the power steering a tad lighter to suit the city driving. On faster runs, when switching off the Eco mode, you do notice a small increase in power and it’ll accelerate from 100km/h in just 11 seconds while its maximum speed is a very respectable 173km/h.
By fitting the 500 with their new TwinAir engine, its makes the car seem like so much more sense – especially as a city car. But like all new super-eco cars be they hybrid or downsized engine in this case, you do need to approach it with economy in mind. If you drive the TwinAir with your foot planted to the floor and Eco mode turned off, you simply won’t get the economy you will possibly be expecting. But if you drive normally, and don’t try to squeeze every last ounce of power from the engine, then the Fiat 500 will return excellent fuel economy of almost less than 4.0L/100km with minuscule emissions. Only 200 examples of the Fiat 500 Matt Black will be made in right-hand drive, meaning that not only with you have something cool, you’re also very unlikely to have another one pull up beside you at a set of lights. So, before you go all Hollywood and buy a Pruis, or go and get yourself a diesel, remember that there’s still plenty of economy to be had from fun petrol engines without destroying the environment!
The Matt Black model comes equipped with sport seats, a sports suspension, air conditioning, Start&Stop, a gearshift indicator, hill-holder, traction control, a leather steering wheel and seven airbags as standard and is priced at £12,365 and is currently available now from all Fiat dealers.
Check out also www.50to70.com – a personal blog of Dave Humphreys.