With car makers keen to reduce emissions and save fuel these days, one obvious place to start is weight reduction. And what better way to cut unnecessary weight than to streamline a car’s engine – downsizing is the new black.
Fiat has long held a reputation for engine development, and it’s now gone and halved the cylinder count for its popular 500.
Dubbed ‘Twinair’ the 500’s 0.9-litre, twin-cylinder petrol unit offers significant savings over a larger four-pot motor in terms of economy, emissions and, unsurprisingly, weight. Fiat is clear that that this engine will be the first of many, and the aim is to reduce emissions levels to new lows well in advance of any country-specific legislation.
The upshot for the consumer is a 500 with more character. When it first appeared some observers were disappointed by its lack of a technological highlight. Sure, the car was a faithful, if larger, reproduction of a popular classic. It didn’t boast anything groundbreaking, though. That’s changed with the arrival of Fiat’s Twinair engine, and it’s difficult to think of a more appropriate home for this remarkable little motor.
There’s no question that the technology underpinning the Twinair engine is impressive. Borrowing Fiat’s recent Multiair development – where airflow into the engine is managed electronically cylinder by cylinder through the unit’s inlet valves, not the throttle – this two-cylinder engine is the product of a clean-sheet design, a new type of turbocharger and a few hundred million Euros.
In reality Fiat’s achievement is worthy of significant praise. In 85 horsepower trim – 105bhp turbo and 65bhp non turbo variants are scheduled to follow – you get the power, accelerative punch and cruising ability of a traditional small capacity four-cylinder petrol car but with the economy and, crucially, emissions of something much smaller. How does 68.9mpg and 95g/km CO2 sound?
Granted, the 500 is hardly a big car, but that’s a 15 percent CO2 reduction over a regular 1.2-litre petrol 500. If you opt for Fiat’s ‘Dualogic’ semi-auto gearbox, the numbers are better still, at 70.6mpg and 92g/km respectively.
With all that data in mind, it only takes a minute to realise how much this particular 500 could save you in fuel and tax over the course of a few years. That’s only part of the ownership experience, however. Turn the key and you enter a new world of two-cylinder fun.
Save for a few hardy souls who have grappled with Citroen’s 2CV, most people will have no prior experience of two-cylinder engines. Unlike with the iconic tin snail, Fiat’s 500 Twinair couldn’t be further from the wheezy, underpowered two-pot stereotype if it tried.
Fiat’s engineers have done an excellent job of isolating the traditional characteristics of such an engine – noise, vibration and harshness, and as a result it proves a charming companion to live with. You immediately warm to its slightly offbeat angry bumble bee engine note. Such a signature tune is perfectly in keeping with the 500’s visual charm and will have you grinning like a child with a whole chocolate bar to itself. Unlike when the confectionary has been consumed, the novelty of a 500 with half a ‘proper’ engine is unlikely to wear thin.
And boy is that engine note addictive. The unit’s smooth power delivery and ample reserves of torque ensure that you’re never left stranded. A predictably sprightly performer around town, the 500 Twinair is equally at home away from the city limits. The car’s sensibly spaced gear ratios do much to enhance the engine’s flexibility, while, overtaking requires less planning than you might imagine and maintaining a motorway speed pace is easier than you think.
Accelerate briskly and you can hear what sounds like a distant 2CV attempting to chase you down, which is guaranteed to keep you smiling even on the commute to work. This focus on the intangible elements of the 500 Twinair might appear tedious to anyone without the faintest interest in cars, but given the cute and cheerful nature of the 500, this added layer of enjoyment is the icing on an already mouthwatering the cake.
Since its launch the 500 has sold well, but was in need of something special to lift it above its numerous rivals. With its clever Twinair engine, Fiat has injected a welcome shot of added interest and set a new benchmark for engine technology.
With equipment levels mirroring that of the regular four-cylinder model line-up and positioned price-wise a step above the entry-level 500, the Twinair variant is not about sacrificing creature comforts when in the pursuit of saving fuel end money.
That the Twinair can also be had in 500C convertible guise is proof that Fiat firmly believes two-cylinder motoring should be fun. And it’s right: this particular 500 is a genuine mini marvel for the masses.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Model: Fiat 500 Twinair Sport, from £12,065 on the road. Twinair range from £10,665.
Engine: 0.9-litre turbo petrol unit developing 85bhp.
Transmission: 5-speed manual transmission as standard, driving the front wheels.
Performance: Maximum speed 108mph, 0-62mph 11.0 seconds.
CO2 Rating: 95g/km.
By Iain Dooley