Hidden under the bonnet is a surprise that could melt the heart of even the most hardened petrolhead

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If you’ve seen adverts for the Fiat 500 TwinAir you’ll be under the impression that this is an eco-special. That only tells half of the story because hidden under the bonnet is a surprise that could melt the heart of even the most hardened petrolhead.

First of all let’s deal with the question of image. The Fiat 500's retro design is a wonderful interpretation of the 1957 original but it is not what you’d call a bloke’s car, it’s a bit … dare I say it … girly. However, choose the right colours and you can give it a more masculine presence and this test car fits that bill quite nicely. The paint is Electroclash Grey metallic (£440 option) with gloss black roof and spoiler (£180 option) and satin black 15-inch alloys. It’s still lacking the rear-view presence of a typical hot hatch but it’s far enough from the cutesy 500 image that a few observers thought it was the sporty Abarth 500.

Go On Then, Pop The Bonnet
Lift the 500's stubby bonnet and you’re greeted by an 875cc petrol engine with only two cylinders, just like the original 500 but with twice the capacity. By modern standards this might seem like extreme downsizing but two cylinders means less internal friction and when twinned with a Stop&Start system it allows the TwinAir to achieve a diesel-matching EU economy figure of 68.9mpg.

With a turbo strapped to the tiny engine the 500 TwinAir offers 85bhp and 107lb/ft of torque. Not a lot, you may think, but factor in the 500's low kerb weight of 930kg and there’s more pace on offer than you might expect.

Two Cylinders? What’s It Sound Like?
Turn the key and the TwinAir settles into a slightly lumpy idle, with a ‘put-put’ beat reminiscent of the classic 500. It’s an unusual sound for a modern engine, far away from the characterless hum of the common four-cylinder engine. I couldn’t help but smile when I heard it for the first time.

Once you get moving and start to stretch the engine you really start to appreciate the noises it can make. It’s loud on full throttle, building to an angry wail with a cheeky rasp as you approach the 6,100rpm red-line. It’s as if someone worked out the best bits of the old 500's character and then added a sporty undercurrent with some modern-day exhaust tuning. It’s an unexpected pleasure and encourages you to make the most of each of the five gears.

At low-speed the 500 pulls away like a scolded cat, making the most of the torque dished up by the turbo. In real terms it’s not a fast car, with a 0-60mph time of 11 seconds and top speed of 108mph, but it feels quicker than those figures suggest, a sensation magnified by the rorty exhaust note.

Once out onto the open road the 500 is eager to please, building speed rapidly. The ride is soft and there is some body roll to contend with but if you wanted flat cornering and a firm ride you’d go for an Abarth 500. Undulations in the road surface can set off a slight bobbing motion from the suspension, but that’s a characteristic you’ll find in many small cars.

Grip is high considering the low-resistance 185/55 tyres and you can put your foot down early on corners and roundabouts, wait a fraction of a second for the turbo to spool up and then feel the 500 pull away cleanly. The advantage of having only 85bhp is that there’s no messy scrabbling from the front, no wheelspin or interference from nannying electronics – the 500 always makes the most of what it’s got.

The 500 is also happy to cruise at motorway speeds as the TwinAir engine provides enough power to mix it with the big boys in the fast lane. At cruising speeds the exhaust settles down to a background hum, although that tends to make the wind noise and tyre roar more noticeable. The steering is a little fidgety, thanks in part to the short wheelbase, so it’s not a relaxing mile muncher.

My main criticism of the 500's driving experience is the steering. It’s one of those electrical systems that varies the assistance depen