We try not to get too hung up with engine size, the torque curve, 0-60 times and the like here at Pocket-lint. But for this Fiat 500 TwinAir review, forgive us if we make an exception to our own rule. Why? We hear you ask. Well, this 500’s only got two (yes two) cylinders under the bonnet - which makes it one of a kind for cars on sale in the UK today.
And the whole two-cylinder engine thing is rather central to pretty much everything about this car.
You’ll be familiar with the Fiat 500 by now. Since 2007 the retro-style reinterpretation of the 1960s icon has been terrorising the streets of European cities, charming the pants off hip city-girls, their mums, dads and grandmas alike.
That shape is instantly recognisable, and regardless of how great a subscriber you are to the notion of modernist or minimal design, it’s hard not to fall for the smiling face of the 500, with it’s puppy dog eyes, retro touches of chrome and flashes of the Italian flag.
It’s a small car, but you’ve space for four - at a push - inside and a bigger boot than the Mini.
Jump in and the gloss dashboard, switch buttons that are like giant gobstoppers, and the stylised central binnacle lift the experience beyond the norm. Remember, you’re paying for a quazi-premium product here, and a crazy price tag is just a step away thanks to hundreds of different personalisation options, should the mood take you.
We’d suggest you don’t go mad, but you can do much more chic and interesting than our rather normal red-with-black test car.
Fiat’s connectivity interface is called "Blue and me". It’s built on Microsoft’s in-car OS, meaning it’s the same architecture as Ford’s brilliant Sync.
You get an aux-in socket, USB port and 12v outlet just ahead of the cup holder, or you can use the Bluetooth. Then you control the phone, music and media via the steering wheel buttons and/or voice commands.
In our experience, talking to your car while driving, and telling it to play some Coldplay usually results in it asking “do you need directions to the motorway”. But Fiat has locked down the system so that the initial set-up and download of data from your phone or mp3 device can only be done while stationary - and it therefore doesn’t have a problem understanding what you say during set-up.
Once paired you only ever need shout simple instructions at it on the move, “Call Mrs Pocket-lint” for example, which it seems to obey with few issues.
Accept this isn’t the Range Rover world of TV and onboard cameras and it all works with a refreshing simplicity, which is kind of the entire point, isn’t it?
We’d also like to give a big thumbs up to fit for featuring a port on the dash-top, to slot in a satnav. We’ve long queried why car makers can’t move the cigarette/12v socket to a more sensible location, so you don’t have to trail wires all over the place to charge a TomTom.
How dim a view you take on the fact that you can only fit Fiat’s specific "Blue and me TomTom" device, rather than your existing nav, probably depends on how flush you’re feeling, and how much you’re bothered about everything integrating and working through the steering wheel. The company will relieve you of around £280 for its device.
Now to that engine. Turn the 500 TwinAir on for the first time and you’re in for a shock. It starts with an almost electronic whine and then throbs into life before settling to a soft put-put-put at idle. For those of you into your mechanical sounds, think crossing a Vespa, a Porsche 911 and an electric kitchen knife and you’ll be some way to imagining what it sounds like. Sounds dreadful doesn’t it? In practice not so much, it puts a big grin on our face every time we press the accelerator.
Set off and the engine spins around the rev counter with surprising vim, and as the revs climb it makes a simply brilliant, like-nothing-on-else-on-the-road noise. The result is that you end up driving the 500 like a go-cart. Sure the ride’s bouncy and the steering feels like it’s turning through glue, but if you want refined or detailed feedback, you’re in the wrong segment altogether. It even does a passable job on the motorway - the flightly ride is less awful than many other tiny city cars, and hit the "eco" button and it all quietens down nicely.
Which is great except that the point of the TwinAir is that it’s supposed to be powerful enough for you to have fun when you want - mission accomplished - but uber-economical if you baby it. Well, we tried, and ended up getting 36mpg, which is pretty shocking for a city car, and one that includes stop/start at that.
Objectively, there are better cars than the Fiat 500 TwinAir. A Smart is smaller and easier to park, a Toyota iQ more sophisticated and space-smart, a Mini more premium and "big-car" in feel. But if you’re of a hard-headed logic, you’re probably not even be considering a 500 the first place. This is a car you buy with your heart because of the way it looks, or because you remember fondly the 60s original.
It isn’t just style over substance. There’s more than enough practical box-ticking here to make it an entirely justifiable choice.
Yes it’s expensive for its size and yes that engine’s economy is questionable, but you can forgive that because it’s just capable of putting a smile on your face - whether you’re looking at it or driving it.
If you’re worried about fuel economy, save yourself some money and buy the 1.2 petrol or better still the 1.3 diesel. But know that you’ll be denying yourself one of the most interesting, charismatic and fun sounding engines on sale in a car today. Sometimes emotion has to overrule logic, and the 500 TwinAir is one of those instances.