The Pingu-friendly version of Fiat's 500 is a two-cylinder...but not as we know it

Welcome to the English Riviera – hope you packed your thermal undies. Yes, while Philip Green and Simon Cowell spend their Januarys lying on Bahamian beaches, I’ve come to the south coast of England, where freezing gales howl across the waves and death comes quickly to anyone daft enough to venture out in swimwear.

I’m not on holiday, of course. Chefs don’t get a winter break. I just popped to the seaside because I thought the blue sea would look nice with this blue Fiat. How wrong could I be? On the plus side, this’ll be the perfect location next time I’ve got a car painted Thunder Grey. 

James Martin and Fiat 500 0.9 TwinAir Lounge

I absolutely love Fiat 500s. I own two of them, and for all its eco credentials, the 500 TwinAir is still a driver's car

I’ll be honest: I’m not a fan of baby-blue cars – but what Fiat is trying to do is associate the 500 TwinAir with clear blue skies and environmental friendliness.

You see, what’s under this little car’s bonnet is one of the most important motoring developments of last year: a two-cylinder engine. Yes, I know those already existed.

The original, Fifties Fiat 500 had a two-cylinder that produced a puny 13hp. This one only delivers 85hp – but that’s 23 per cent more than with the 1.2-litre four-cylinder engine Fiat has been using up to now. It also does nearly 70 miles to the gallon and is so clean it’s exempt from road tax and the congestion charge. 

Fiat 500 0.9 TwinAir Lounge's view of the interior

The view of the interior

It’s all done by combining variable valve timing with turbocharging – what Fiat calls MultiAir technology. I don’t understand all of it, but I’m sure when the firm says this will change the way we think of petrol engines, it’s right. Few diesels are as cheap to run as this.

Still, I think it could have made that point with a nice red one, or something snazzy in white.

Fiat 500 0.9 TwinAir Lounge's integrated speedometer and information panel

The integrated speedometer and information panel

Apart from the heater there’s not much to see inside, with this deliberately retro design. You can link up your phone or iPod via Bluetooth, but sat-nav isn’t built in; instead you can specify a stick-on, Bluetooth-linking TomTom.

Mine doesn’t have that. It does have a gear-shift indicator, which constantly wants me to change up to use less fuel, and an Eco button, which reduces your maximum torque by about a third – so it’s the opposite of a Sport button. Obviously I haven’t used that.

If it’s sounding like I haven’t enjoyed the 500 TwinAir, that’s wrong, because once I was on the road I grew to love it.

You’d think the tiny engine would struggle with motorway speeds, but you can pull out to overtake without ever embarrassing yourself, and it cruises very calmly at 70 in fifth gear.

You can’t really tell it’s not a standard four-cylinder – until you get stuck in traffic, that is, when the puttering noise of the engine on tick-over starts to do your head in.

Maybe that’s a good thing, as we’re now told we could be fined if we leave our engine idling for long periods. And I should point out that if you’re the kind of person who engages neutral when stopped at a red light (which I’m not) the start/stop will automatically cut out the engine anyway.

I absolutely love Fiat 500s. I own two of them, and for all its eco credentials, this one is still a driver’s car.

Fiat 500 0.9 TwinAir Lounge's centre console
Fiat 500 0.9 TwinAir Lounge's steering wheel

The centre console (left) and the steering wheel (right)

It’s not going to break the land-speed record, but the chassis and suspension are light and lively, it’s comfy and surprisingly roomy in the back, and it retains the crucial fun factor. I drove a 500 to a track day once; it had a flower sticker on the rear, much to the amusement of the manly pit crew and the blokes in their V8s.

The thing was, after three laps, when the tyres were warmed up, I was keeping up with them – even overtaking a few, which had the marshals doing double takes. These things are up there with Minis in their ability to put a smile on anyone’s face.

It’s rare for something that makes you grin to be cheap to run as well. Normally it’s a trade-off. But that’s going to change this year, starting with this little 70mpg marvel.

There’s now a Corsa that manages nearly 80mpg. Then in March there’ll be the smart new Ford Focus, the eco version of which does 75mpg, and in the autumn VW is launching a little car called the Up!, which I hear might eventually do 100mpg (using a two-cylinder engine like the Fiat).

Then we’ll see the hybrids, such as the plug-in Vauxhall Ampera due next winter, which will do 175mpg – although with those you’re paying a premium for the new technology.

The TwinAir might not seem super-cheap – they start at £11,000 – but zero road tax, fewer refills and no congestion charge definitely sweeten the deal.

Would I buy one? For God’s sake, not in this colour – but yes, why not?

Anything that looks this cute and helps save the penguin is good for me. Talking of which, did you know that the wine expert on the next page was once a writer for Pingu?

Brilliant: getting paid to write for a cartoon seabird who doesn’t say anything. Shivering on the beach here, I think I should ask him for some career advice…


Fiat 500 0.9 TwinAir Lounge's air vents


Engine 875cc two-cylinder, turbocharged

Transmission Five-speed manual

Power 85hp

Max torque 145Nm at 1,900rpm

Top speed 108mph

0-60mph 11 seconds

Fuel consumption 69mpg

CO2 emissions 95g/km (no road tax)

Standard features 15in alloys, ABS with EBD, engine start/stop, air-con, leather steering wheel, fixed glass roof, electrochromatic rear-view mirror, electric front windows, six-speaker radio/ CD system with USB aux in

Optional extras 16in alloys, ESP, bi-xenon headlights, leather upholstery, tinted rear windows, robotised gearbox, automatic climate control, electric seats, electric sunroof, fog lights, rear parking sensors, chrome door mirrors, Interscope sound system with subwoofer, Blue&Me TomTom navigation screen


What's hot on the road this week


Ford Focus

The new Ford Focus is arriving in March, starting at £15,995, and the options are surprisingly hi-tech. A digital camera mounted by the rearview mirror monitors road signs and detects if you're straying out of lane - it can even steer you back on course - and you can also specify blind-spot monitoring, low-speed-collision prevention, adaptive cruise control and Active Park Assist, where the car steers itself. Clever stuff.


Mercedes SLK

June sees the arrival of the thirdgeneration Mercedes SLK, featuring the remarkable Magic Sky Control: a panoramic sunroof that changes from clear to opaque at the touch of a button. The engines, now up to 25 per cent more efficient and badged BlueEfficiency, include a 1.8-litre four-cylinder that produces 184hp in the SLK 200 and 204hp in the SLK 250, and a 3.5-litre V6 producing 306hp in the SLK 350. An optional Dynamic Handling Package adds continuously adjustable damping and torque vectoring. 



At the Detroit motor show ending today, Hyundai unveiled a new three-door coupé to take on the VW Scirocco and the forthcoming Mini Coupé. On sale next winter, the Veloster marries Hyundai's first six-speed twin-clutch transmission to a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine for 175hp performance, and will come with the firm's five-year Triple Care package (warranty, roadside assistance and vehicle health checks). Prices are yet to be announced.

By Simon Lewis

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