So, I’ve been thinking. Satnav’s not really all that is it? I mean, it has its uses, but that little screen suckered to the windscreen or beaming from the dashboard is far too small for starters. And it can prove to be distracting if you’re having to interpret the pictures and instructions yourself whilst traversing a multi-carriageway interchange. My wandering mind has come up with what I believe will be a solution. A navigational wonder that’ll make you question how you coped with your little TomTom. This is going to be so big, I’m expecting a call from QVC to showcase it within hours of this post going live. I’m talking about something I call, and bear with me while you get your head around this, the MAP.
MAP? Yes, it’s a funny-sounding acronym that stands for Manual Atlas Protocol. The genius concept is this: all the satnav screen shots are printed off on large sheets of paper and bound together into something that resembles a book. The images are now so big you can see much more of where you’re intending to go at just the turn of a page. All those special places of interest, like historic monuments, battle sites and Little Chefs, conveniently already printed on the leaves without the need to finger prod through a series of confusing drop down menus.
But it gets even better, because the MAP can be upgraded with the fitment of an extra-cost option, which makes its use even more convenient. This special accessory, currently known as the FSP (Front Seat Passenger), takes on the task of reading the MAP and verbalising directions, ensuring you are able to concentrate on the road ahead. I can’t see how it can possibly fail, so much so that I’ve applied to appear on the next series of Dragons’ Den.
Such an idea would be consigned to the bin of ridicule, for the reality is this vogue-ish penchant for all things retro is not a game changer. And similarly, in the world of car design, retro-inspired ideas tend to prove to be blind alleys, rather than pushing the boundaries of automotive evolution. Consequently success is more often the exception rather than the rule when the designer’s wand of yesteryear has been used to pen the lines. With my love of cars that move the game on in some way, or which appear gloriously beautiful (or ugly), retro is just not something that does it for me. A genuine period piece from whichever era is preferable to the modern pastiche.
All things considered then, Fiat’s dinky little 500 shouldn’t appeal to me all, being the epitome of a classic design from decades hence, gently tweaked and stretched over modern platform architecture and mechanicals. So why does it grab me by the ears and shout ‘want me’ in my face?
So it looks old but does the Fiat 500 use old technology?
The little Cinquecento has been a common sight on Britain’s roads since its launch here back in 2008, customers appreciating the cheeky looks, ease of customisation and tiny size making it perfect for nipping in and out of urban chicanery. Fiat has cleverly drip fed the market with new versions to keep interest strong in its diminutive, Polish-built model. The initial range of hatchbacks with 1.2 and 1.4 petrol engines, together a 1.3-litre turbo diesel were joined by the 500C cabriolet, whilst pocket rocket aficionados celebrated the return of the scorpion-badged Abarth performance variants.
On test here was the latest addition to the mechanical line-up, the much vaunted TwinAir. Its name is derived from the specific arrangement in which it sucks air into the combustion chambers of its two cylinders. Yes, two cylinders. In recent years manufacturers have slowly and subtly been downsizing their engine ranges but hiding the drop in cubic capacity by fitting efficient, modern turbocharging technology. The masquerade continues with ever more brands removing specific reference to the engine size in the full model description, replaced instead by a rounded up approximation of the engine’s power output.
Revealing to enquiring minds that the TwinAir produces 85bhp is greeted with general nods of approval, being respectable for a car of this size. But mention the TwinAir’s 875cc capacity and the questioning expressions become incredulous – “surely you must really have to thrash it to get anywhere?” Err, well, no. Whilst some industry awards leave onlookers scratching their heads, the fact the TwinAir is the 2011 recipient of the Engine of the Year Award seems eminently sensible.
Turbocharging winds up surprisingly accessible deliveries of torque, which feels especially prevalent in second and third gears, where the 500 propels forward vigorously, rev counter rounding willingly to its red line. But what surprises even more than that torque surge from the tiny motor is its soundtrack as you work it through the gears at varying degrees of acceleration.
Below 3000rpm the twin-pot engine engages the senses with the rhythmic thrum of a feral motorbike, zesty and snarly, begging to be opened up and unleashed on the road, zipping in and out of the way of High Street slow coaches and thrusting on to the open road where it can let rip. Cross that 3000rpm arc of the tachometer and a strange metamorphosis occurs: out goes the mechanical rolling of the Rs in the engine note and in comes a smoother, deeper chorus. The aural delivery sounds powerful, yet muffled, almost as though you can hear a NASCAR race somewhere close by yet you can’t see any of the psychedelic paint jobs to confirm it.
In this sub-Abarth world of 500s, Fiat pitches the TwinAir as a sporty option; a slightly spicier Tikka offering in a world of meat and two veg alternatives. Not that you’d guess from the headline figures in the brochure, which suggests a top speed of 108mph and a 0-60 saunter of some 11 seconds. In the real world though, it feels significantly faster, with fine in-gear acceleration and an engine that thrives on a heavy foot on the accelerator. That same weighty, right-sided appendage plays havoc with the fuel economy though; a test average of 42mpg is significantly short of the claimed 68.9mpg. During the week with the car the highest I achieved was a more respectable mid-50s. Maybe I should learn to be more parsimonious but that TwinAir sings an alluring melody as it’s toyed with.
Fiat’s sporty overtures with the TwinAir range continue with the styling themes, both inside and out. Out go the chrome-look brightwork features of the Pop and Lounge models and ushered in are satin finish silvers and dark appliqués to mirrors, wheels and bumper edges. It works well, adding a contemporary dash to the otherwise retrospective styling fest, without looking silly or overdone.
Inside, the dark and metallic finish continues, with darker seats (this one was kitted out with optional leather at £780), blackened plastics and a silver dashboard plinth instead of the more usual body-coloured one. The cabin austerity of the look reduces the fun and cuteness, but the architecture remains as before, ensuring the endearing instrument binnacle, with its concentric speedo and rev counter remain.
Being a small car, the Fiat 500 must be cheap though?
TwinAir versions of the 500 come in the standard form of the model tested here, rising through the better equipped Plus model and up to the more conventionally-trimmed (for a 500) luxury Lounge version. Each comes with a 5-speed manual gearbox as standard but can also be specified with the automated Dualogic transmission, which has marginally better claims for fuel economy (70.6mpg) and emissions (92g/km of CO2 as opposed to the manual’s 95g/km). If you’re considering a TwinAir and expect to spend most of your time confined to cityscape environs, then the sheer ease of use of the automatic will be hard to overlook.
For its £11,660 price tag, the basic TwinAir model feels a little under-equipped and seeing how a customer could get carried away ticking the option boxes to make it feel more special, as well as personalised, is rather easy. As standard you’ll find manual air conditioning, radio/CD player, trip computer, electric windows and mirrors, 15” dark finished alloys and a stop-and-go function to cut the engine out when the car’s not moving. The test car was also fitted with a split rear seat (£160), an electric glass sunroof (avoid at £580) and Blue&Me Bluetooth connectivity with iPod port (£270), in addition to the black leather option.
Overall, prices range from £9960 for a 500 1.2 Pop hatchback to an eye-watering £19,060 for a limited edition 500C by Gucci TwinAir cabriolet.
There doesn’t look to be a lot of space inside…
Space inside the 500 is not as tight as its exterior suggests, with seating for four adults, although inevitably those much above 5ft would find the rear bench a little tight on longer journeys for heads and legs. If you’re blessed with being oddly proportioned like me, with a long body being responsible for much of your height, you’ll probably want to forgo the prospect of the electric sunroof. Eventually I found a comfortable driving position but where I’d tend to naturally have the seat meant that my scalp rubbed against the edge of the headlining around the sunroof opening. If you want to let the light in, opt for the cheaper fixed glass roof or go the whole hog and go roll-back fabric with the 500C.
The cabin’s narrowness is evident when you see it front the straight ahead or directly behind, as is the aggressive angle of the tumblehome (the narrowing of the bodywork from the waistline to the roof). Whilst this ratchets up the cute factor to 11, it ensures the front cabin is ‘cosy’. You feel yourself frequently getting intimate with the door card, while on your opposite side the seatbelt buckle is very close to the seat itself, making night time fumbles to slot it home tricky until familiarity sets in. Two further minor irritations: left-footed toes regularly felt the turn of the steering column if cornering and declutching at the same time and more than once I mistook the seat height adjuster for the handbrake. Fair enough, that might have been my stupidity rather than a design flaw that could be improved upon.
Small cars are all about getting from A to B, aren’t they? In the case of the TwinAir-engined Fiat 500, I’d want it to be from Aberdeen to Birmingham in order to enjoy more time behind the wheel.
It’s not a small, accomplished driver’s car like the much larger MINI, nor is it especially sporty in much other than looks but it’s acceptably competent on whichever kind of road you choose to explore with it. It won’t have you planning your journeys via wiggly B-roads you’ve spotted on Ordnance Survey maps and there’s an amusing amount of suspension bounce over longer stretches of undulating asphalt too. The steering offers a limited amount of feel through its electric assistance, although the flipside is the fingertip spinability when nipping into impossibly short-looking parking spaces.
What it has in spades is desirability, a commodity in a small car that’s far too often eschewed for practicality or thriftiness. If you want a small hatchback that can transport three rugby playing passengers, a bull mastiff and all for £8000, then that’s fair enough – you’re then buying mere transportation, something that really was designed to get from A to B with no emotional attachment.
The 500 is an extension of its owner’s personality, bristling with character and with the TwinAir under the bonnet, has an acoustic sense of humour too. Regardless of it being retro, the tiniest Fiat is the city car with a big attraction.
Thumbs Up: Too cute styling, enormous presence for a small car, that TwinAir engine’s noise and performance, fit and finish.
Thumbs Down: Not exactly cheap, real world fuel economy, scope to make it more engaging as a driver’s car.
Model Tested: Fiat 500 TwinAir
Top Speed: 108mph
Combined cycle fuel consumption: 68.9mpg
CO2 emissions: 95g/km
Engine size: 2/875cc fuel injection, turbocharged petrol
Boot space: 185-550l
Kerb weight: 930kg
Price: £11,660 (January 2012)
All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2012