► Fiat's mild hybrid 500
► City car also lightly updated
► Is MHEV tech worth it?
We could talk all day about the Fiat 500’s engines - from the 1.2-litre petrol that struggled up hills, to the promised mega-economy of the TwinAir that was too much fun to drive efficiently, and the diesel option that was dropped, reintroduced and then dropped again.
There’s little point though, because few Fiat buyers care about its performance - there are various Abarth versions for that. This is a car that majors on visual appeal and customisation options; the engine merely needs to move it around with less effort than physically pushing it Flintstone’s style while doing so as cheaply as possible. And that’s an area where this Italian city car hasn’t always delivered on its claims.
No longer, says Fiat, thanks to the inclusion of a modern hybrid petrol engine, aimed specifically at saving you money via the various tax breaks and benefits that come from cutting CO2 emissions to below the 90g/km barrier.
Like the engineering that powered the original 500, which could be repaired by hand using parts from Woolworths (probably), the new hybrid is a very simple solution. It’s a 1.0-litre, three cylinder petrol engine with two valves per cylinder and no turbo, boosted by a 12v belt starter generator and 11Ah lithium ion battery.
This is no hybrid superwoke synergy megadrive, nor does it use a clutchless dogbox transmission like the Renault Clio hybrid. This is the mildest of mild electrical assistance – you can’t drive in EV mode and there’s no plug socket to top it up. What you’re looking at is essentially an extended start/stop.
Suzuki has been doing this for years with its SHVS system - harvesting and storing energy normally lost under deceleration or braking, to be used to bolster the petrol engine’s performance or allow it to switch off and coast at speeds below 18mph.
Does it work?
Hard to say, and that’s either because it’s so well integrated or because it’s not doing all that much. In reality it’s somewhere between the two.
Driven blind it’s unlikely that you’d notice any difference between this and 1.2-litre petrol engine it technically replaces – both offer near as makes no odds 70bhp and 0-62mph times around 14 seconds, but Fiat claims the new motor is between 20-30% more efficient.
One function stands out, and that’s the ‘N’ symbol that flashes on the 7.0-inch digital instrument cluster as you come to a stop, telling you to select neutral to enable the engine to switch off and save fuel, something usually taken care of in a hybrid by the automatic gearbox. The 500 doesn’t have an automatic gearbox though, it has a six-speed manual, so selecting neutral is something you must do yourself.
Maybe it’s because I passed my test in the dark ages (relatively speaking) but cruising along in neutral brings back less than fond memories of my driving instructor furiously repeating ‘no drive, no control’ at me while I lazily rolled to a stop out of gear or with the clutch down. It might save fuel but out on the roads how long will it be before you simply can’t be bothered to go through the motions anymore?
So it’s not worth it?
No, that’s not the case at all – any development that helps cut fuel costs and emissions in a car designed to be driven in the city can only be a good thing, particularly if it doesn’t penalise you with a CVT or the need to plug it in all the time.
It’s not even that expensive. Fiat says there’s a premium of £500 for this engine, but over the course of three years it will save you around £1,400 in tax discounts and fuel savings. Even if you don’t drive particularly efficiently it’s unlikely to cost you anything, so where’s the negative?
Regardless of eco-intentions, the new three-cylinder engine is also great fun – it makes a willing and entertaining noise and responds well to being ruthlessly thrashed in order to get the most out of it, in the finest of Fiat 500 traditions. Obviously doing so will harpoon any chance of cutting your fuel bill but, even so, it makes for a nice addition to the range.
A Mini hatch is still a sharper drive overall, but the 500 can at least still argue it’s a small city car. Inside two adults will feel nearly as well acquainted as if they were in a Caterham, and those poky dimensions make decisive town manoeuvres a breeze. As does the super-light steering and clutch, although the gearbox in our test car was a bit notchy, and sometimes imprecise in the shift between first and second.
Fiat 500 hybrid: verdict
Instead of letting the hybrid tech define this Fiat 500 we think it’s better to think of it as a supplementary engineering addition that boosts performance and efficiency, kind of like a turbo, that doesn’t really need to be broadcast.
Better to think of this hybrid model an up-to-date and frugal petrol engine that betters the 1.2-litre unit it replaces in all arenas, rather than a vegan-pleasing refreezer of the ice caps.
There’s also a giant elephant in the room here – because if you really want the lowest tailpipe emissions possible in a city car then obviously the upcoming electric 500 (or its great many rivals like the electrified VW Up trio or Smart ForTwo) would be a considerably better bet.
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