Car reviews - Fiat - 500 - TwinAir
Cracking engine, still got the looks, sharper new price, chic cabin styling, decent rear space
Room for improvement
Lifeless steering, limited cabin storage, firm ride, driver ergonomics, still not cheap
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16 Apr 2013
Price and equipment
FIAT earlier this year slashed the 500’s starting price to $18,800 plus on-roads – a discount of more than $4000.
Even still, it’s not the cheapest light-car, considering its positively titchy dimensions. The Ford Fiesta, Mazda2 and Volkswagen Polo are all cheaper.
Heck, the similarly sized (and equally European) Volkwagen Up undercuts it by nearly $5000.
But hey, that’s the price you pay for style. Few cars will turn so many heads at this price point – at least not new ones. In white, with those standard charcoal alloy wheels, it still looks a million bucks.
The list of standard equipment is ok, with the noticeable omission of cruise control and reversing sensors.
Included in the price are climate control, a trip computer, foglights, 16-inch alloy wheels, MP3 sound system with voice-operated Bluetooth phone, and USB/auxiliary points. Silver-finish mirrors and doorhandles are also standard fare.
Options include a sunroof ($1950), leather seats ($1450), and a TomTom touchscreen satellite navigation system that clips on top of the dash.
MUCH in keeping with the 1960s theme of the exterior (ok, so the classic 500 that inspired this car debuted in 1957...), the cabin pinches elements from the original, most notably the curved coloured centrepiece that runs from door to door (plastic, as opposed to the original’s metal).
Everything is simple to navigate in here, with several large and friendly ventilation dials and a simple radio unit. The quality is also excellent compared to some other lower-end Italian cars we could name, and the shiny surfaces are hard to the touch but more tactile than many cars this price.
The chunky leather steering wheel adds a hint of class – albeit without reach adjustment – and the large singular dial in the binnacle is a nicer retro design than Mini’s fascia-mounted version.
The Bluetooth system is simple to pair, but flaky – several times we had to re-pair at start-up – and our car had an annoying habit of starting with a different radio station that we’d had on when we switched off the ignition.
Imagine, as a young inner-city hipster, turning the car off with Triple J blaring, only to have a classic rock station greet you with Billy Joel when you switch the car back on!
Outward visibility is excellent thanks to the big bubble windows, although the rear mirrors are small and there are no parking sensors (not even as an option).
Still, its dimensions make it a doddle to park.
A real bugbear in here is the lack of cabin storage. The door pockets are tiny, there’s no console, and the glovebox is exposed. Rear-seat map pockets help, but ultimately it’s tough to find room for all the paraphernalia of modern life in here.
Ergonomics are also a bit off, with a lack of driver’s footrest and tight kneeroom joining the list of foibles next to the lack of steering wheel reach adjustment.
Engine and transmission
THE engine is an 875cc two-cylinder. You read that bit right.
You can almost smell the two-stroke.
We know ‘downsizing’ is in vogue right now, but surely this is a bridge too far?
Well no, actually. Ok, so the tiny turbo two-pot sounds vaguely like a lawn mower, and has less capacity than many road bikes, but it goes about its business with rare vim and vigour., With 63kW available at 5500rpm and 145Nm of torque from a low 1900 rpm, the 500 is more powerful than several three-cylinder rivals.
We also loved its off-kilter warble and the endearing little thrum it made when on throttle.
It sounds a little anaemic at low revs, but once you’re buzzing above 3500rpm it comes alive. We have a super-steep and narrow driveway that has bested cars before, but the little engine hustled the 900kg Fiat up without a drama.
A zero to 100km/h sprint time of 11.0 seconds is a little tardy, but in the inner-city, it felt zippy enough to sneak into small gaps, and was quite happy to sit at freeway speeds.
Fiat claims fuel consumption over the combined cycle of 4.0 litres per 100km (95 RON premium juice is required).
We managed mid-6s, but then again, we were giving it a bit of stick. It’s quite addictive, considering the endearing racket that emanates from under the bonnet (so much space under there too!).
The five-speed manual gearbox may lack a ratio over most modern cars, but has a pleasant shift, a light clutch and – thanks to its high placement on the dash – falls to hand easily. And this last point is a positive, since this is a car that requires a level of rowing through the gears.
But don’t even think about skimping on this and opting for the ‘robotised’ five-speed automatic – previous experience dictates this is a frustrating unit that chokes the life from the engine with its sluggish gear changes.
Ride and handling
RIDE quality is firm, albeit not as spine-numbing as the 500’s Abarth hot hatch twin.
Because the car is so light and the dimensions are so tiny, the TwinAir feels agile and eager to turn in, while the rear torsion beam suspension setup means the back tends to hop about over bumps in an almost engaging fashion.
The 9.3 metre turning circle is small, even by class standards, but for some reason it doesn’t feel it – we did several three-point turns where we felt they shouldn’t be necessary.
But it’s not the last word in dynamic sharpness, and the woolly electric steering is simultaneously lacking in weight and feel. It’s no modern Mini Cooper, that’s for sure.
Safety and servicing
THE 500 achieves a five-star occupant safety rating from Euro NCAP, and comes with seven airbags as standard.
However, it should be noted that the rival VW Up has autonomous low-speed braking, something the Fiat can only dream of.
Fiat offers a three-year/100,000km warranty, check with your local dealer for service pricing. The company also offers three-years/150,000 of unlimited, 24/7 roadside assistance.
COMPARED to similarly sized superminis, the 500 TwinAir isn’t cheap. But then, compared to retro chic rivals such as the $25,600 Mini Ray, it looks a steal.
We always loved the styling, which is a wonderful re-imagining of the beloved 1957 original, and the chipper little two-cylinder engine gives it new-found verve and character.
More importantly, it made us laugh, and even our more gruff and hard-headed writers raised a smile behind the wheel.
1. Volkswagen Up
, From $13,990 plus on-road costs. Class benchmark mixing a sharp price with top-notch refinement, safety, driveability and style. Deserved its World Car of the Year 2012 title.
, From $26,500 plus on-road costs. Larger than the 500, but thanks to its fashion-conscious retro styling, likely to attract cross-shoppers. Still the king of dynamics at this end of town, but expensive for what it is.
, From $13,490 plus on-road costs. Heaps of cabin space, cheap running costs and a characterful three-pot engine make this a popular budget choice. El cheapo cabin and lack of style next to the Up, though.
MAKE/MODEL: Fiat 500 TwinAir
ENGINE: 875cc two-cylinder turbo-petrol
LAYOUT: Front transverse, front-drive
POWER: 63kW @ 5500rpm
TORQUE: 145Nm @ 1900rpm
TRANSMISSION: Five-speed manual
TOP SPEED: 173km/h
SUSPENSION f/r: MacPherson independent/ torsion beam with anti-roll bar
STEERING: Electric rack and pinion
BRAKES f/r: 257mm discs/180mm drums
PRICE: From $18,800 before on-roads
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