Fiat 500 Twin Air

With a facia like a Roberts radio the Fiat 500 Twin Air raises retro to new frontiers. Italian engineers at the press launch this week could not resist congratulating themselves on a conspicuous success. It sips fuel by the teaspoonful and has the lowest exhaust emissions of any production petrol engine. Even climate-change sceptics can not gainsay free entry to the London Congestion Charge zone, with 95kg/km of CO2 from the exhaust.

Pert, pretty and engaging, Fiat 500s have form. Remember 13bhp. The first 500 of 1936, the Topolino or Mickey Mouse, had a 569cc side-valve 4-cylinder at the front driving the rear wheels, independent suspension by transverse leaf spring, weighed 535kg (1179lb) and did about 53mph and 45mpg. More than half a million were made. Recreated in 1957, the engine was changed to a 479cc overhead valve vertical twin, put at the back and shorn of a transmission shaft its weight was reduced to 470kg (1035lb). It still gave only13bhp so it didn’t go much faster but it used less fuel; 50mpg against about 47mpg.
Like VW, with the born-again Beetle, the 4-cylinder retro-styled Fiat 500 of July 2007 shifted the engine to the front again, driving the front wheels. Safety equipment and crash protection made it heavier and now we have another vertical twin with a chain drive ohc to 4-valve heads. It is now 900kg (1984lb) but this little jewel of a car has a turbocharger, and with 85bhp and five gears will do 108mph and, on the extra-urban cycle, 76.5mpg.

At 60mph the new Twin Air burbles along at a restful 2,500rpm in fifth. Dr Lanchester’s clever balancer shaft hasn’t quite smoothed out the beat of the two cylinder engine but it is not an unpleasant buzz. You can’t call it swift at 11sec to 60mph and the gearshift is a bit woolly but what a little charmer. People smiled at in picturesque Berkshire, where the local authorities are speed camera-mad, obsessed with chicanes, road humps and so-called traffic-calming, outdated and largely discredited safety measures, which must do little for the residents’ peace of mind.
Veteran Fiat PR Peter Newton runs well-organised, informative launches, packed with information. Based at the splendid Forbury Hotel, cheek by jowl with Reading Gaol, well worth a Ballad.

The heart of rual autumnal Berkshire