This isn’t our first taste of the facelifted-for-2016 Fiat 500. You can read our in-depth review of the renewed car in entry-level 1.2-litre form here, but this is the other side of the petrol coin – the buzzy little two-cylinder 875cc turbocharged TwinAir.
Remind me what’s changed on the facelifted Fiat 500?
A bit of minor airbrushing around the exterior, with droopier graphic eyelids inside the headlights for a more doe-eyed expression, and new body-coloured patches inside the tail-lights turning them into oblong mint-with-the-hole cut-outs.
The radiator grille’s been polished up with some extra chrome, most noticeably on the top Lounge trim, with a kind of three-dimensional pincushion treatment – fussy or fabulous depending on your point of view.
Last, but certainly not least in fashionista 500 world, there’s a new swatch card of exterior colours, including our test car’s glitzy ‘Avantgarde Bordeaux’ red.
No reinvention of the wheel here either: look to the centre console for the biggest changes, with Fiat’s latest-generation ‘uConnect’ multimedia screen replacing the previous CD-radio unit. Top Lounge models get a new (and slightly fiddly) touchscreen, and all 500s now get illuminated USB and aux-in connections.
Minor tweaks to the electric window switches and steering-mounted audio controls make them sturdier and easier to use, but the gear lever surround, noted for ‘popping off’ after a few thousand miles on a few customers’ cars, returns unchanged, as do the similarly vulnerable exterior door handle mouldings.
A deeper set of cupholders are now more capable of actually holding cups, helping to keep the new range of interior fabrics (a kind of vintage tweed in our test car) coffee stain-free. And the latches to flip the front seats forwards are now in black, replacing the old grubby-in-no-time cream-coloured handles.
The driving position still feels precariously high-perched. Adjusting the seat height only serves to make the driving position feel more awkward, as the mechanism lowers your hips but keeps your knees in the same place. The headroom-eating glass roof in the car we tested flattened a few taller drivers’ haircuts, too.
What’s the TwinAir like to drive?
Still charming, still sounding like a wasp blowing a raspberry, and still capable of surprisingly potent performance for such a tiny engine, especially in top 103bhp guise (an 83bhp version is also available). The narrow powerband offers a very narrow window to work within, and until you become accustomed to the TwinAir’s quirks it can be difficult to drive smoothly.
There’s a laggy initial response, then a surge of power to rush you towards the soft rev limiter – easily bumped into, especially as it cuts in before the needle actually reaches the redline. You’ll need to change up earlier than feels natural, especially if you want to achieve anywhere near decent fuel economy. We saw mpg readings in the low 30s on the trip computer – a little way off the official high 60s combined figure. You soon adapt to it, though, and it’s a fun engine to learn.
As with the pre-facelift 500, slow steering and a short wheelbase can give the initial impression of skittish handling at speed, but it’s ultimately quite stable. The ride’s still a little on the thumpy side though, largely a function of the titchy wheelbase.
That does make for a fantastic turning circle, though, and the 500 remains well at home in the city.
Should I buy a 1.2 or a TwinAir 500?
Short answer: you’re better off with the 1.2 – cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, and smoother (if slower) to drive. The TwinAir’s loads more fun, though.
And if you’re likely to take the 50 out of its natural habitat and venture onto the motorway regularly, an updated version of the 1.3-litre diesel engine’s on the way soon.
The Fiat 500 is still one of the most characterful cars on the road. The facelift can’t fix some of its enduring shortcomings: tough ride, lack of headroom for tall folk, odd driving position and expensive pricing in particular. But a well-judged set of worthwhile updates have made a great piece of product design feel that little bit fresher.