By Jesse Adams
Johannesburg - I had it all planned out. A proud announcement and shouty proclamation that I’ve driven a car with a two-cylinder engine. It’s a momentous occasion, you know. Like when you first drive a V8. Or V12. Or rotary. But with way fewer pistons. Well, more in the rotary’s case, but you get the point.
And then I remembered that BMW’s i3 Rex has a two-cylinder engine, and I’ve driven that. Dammit. There goes my exuberant intro. But wait a second... that car doesn’t really count because its two-banger is really just an on-board generator to charge its battery pack. The tiny 875cc turbopetrol motor at the front of Fiat’s new 500 Twinair on the other hand actually drives the front wheels, so I’m claiming it as my first two-cylindered car. Cue the confetti.
Cool hey? Two cylinders. Not all that uncommon in motorcycles, but almost unheard of in anything with four wheels. These days I mean. Fiat actually has a long history of twins - the original Cinquecento had one in the 50s, and so did the Topolino even before that. Any European readers will be rolling their eyes at this point, because this engine’s not all that new either. It’s been used in Fiat Pandas and Puntos (even Alfa MiTos) overseas since 2010.
We wonder what took Fiat SA so long to bring it here, especially considering that cars under one-litre capacity imported from Europe qualify as 100 percent duty free. No brainer. Cheaper to import means cheaper to sell, and this new model is relatively well priced compared to the now discontinued 1.2s and 1.4s we had before. Anyway, it’s here now, and is the only engine available in the current 500 range.
The idea behind it is obvious. A very small engine should consume very little fuel. Fiat claims as little as 3.8 litres per 100km in the 63kW Pop Star version on test here (there’s also a 77kW Lounge spec).
Unfortunately we couldn’t get anywhere near that figure.
And not for lack of trying. I drove it for a week in throttle-deadening Eco mode, with auto stop/start engaged, and the best I could dot was 7.4 litres per 100km. Even worse was the car’s Trip B readout for the past 650km (I don’t know who drove it or how before us) which revealed a very tragic 8.3. Ouch.
It might be a big ask, especially for those concerned with polar icecaps and suchlike, but if you can get past its thirstiness this is still a fun little package. An offbeat exhaust murmur and gruff idle are certainly true to the original, but its period-correct level of cabin noise might be too much for some. Think somewhere between a card in a bicycle’s spokes and the toccata-toccata of a distant helicopter’s blades. I thought it sounded great. Others might not.
Power delivery is surprisingly decent. The turbo is set with very low boost so lag is almost non-existent, and its 145Nm torque output seems accessible right off idle. The rev counter’s 6000rpm redline is a bit of a white lie, though, as it actually cuts out before the needle gets there. But revving past 4000 is a fruitless exercise anyway. The narrow powerband is almost turbodiesel-like, so shifting early and often is the best way to tap what’s available.
The introduction of the Twinair engine coincides with a facelift to the 500 and despite Fiat calling it a major upgrade, it’s really very minor. New chrome bits here and there, a bolder bumper/grille combo, and some slightly changed lights is the gist of it. Inside there’s a real cubbyhole now (previous models had a little shelf instead), and the steering wheel’s been updated, but a vivid new 125mm colour touchscreen does a lot to modernise the feel of the otherwise extremely retro cabin.
There’s a lot of hard plastic in there, but it’s easily forgiveable because it’s all styled so nicely. The body-coloured dashboard insert is a snazzy touch passed down from the original Cinquecento - in our test unit’s case a cool robin’s egg blue offset with old-fashioned cream steering wheel, cluster bezel and climate controls.
Because it’s a facelift, this version keeps the squarish chassis dimension that makes it such a nimble handler. The 500 is a city car at heart, and its short wheelbase and relatively wide track make for needle-threading traffic negotiation. It’s not harshly sprung either so it handles damaged roads with reasonable comfort, and power steering assistance is definitely set up to be easy on the arms.
Limited seat adjustments won’t go down well with taller drivers, though; the fixed height is clearly intended for shorter folk. The back seat’s also not intended for regular use, or at least not for fully grown people. The glass roof’s retractable shade is also too thin for the intensity of African sun, so it might be wise to keep a cap or two in the new cubbyhole.
It’s a shame the new Twinair engine isn’t more fuel efficient in real-world conditions, but it’s still fun to drive and surprisingly peppy given its tiny displacement. Thankfully Fiat has passed some of the saved import duties on to customers, and pricing is quite keen in this segment - as niche as it is. This middle spec Pop Star manual model comes in at a hair under 200k, and standard fare includes seven airbags, six speakers, alloy wheels, parking sensors and that nifty touchscreen display. Bargain.
Fiat 500 Twinair Pop Star
Engine: 0.9-litre, 2-cylinder turbopetrol
Gearbox: Five-speed manual
Power: 63kW @ 5500rpm
Torque: 145Nm @ 1900rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 11.0 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 173km/h
Price: R199 900
Warranty: Three-year/100 000km
Maintenance plan: Three-year/100 000km.
Follow Jesse Adams on Twitter @PoorBoyLtd