2013 Fiat 500e, the cinquecento elettrico: Motoramic Drives
Talk about a world car. The latest electric vehicle is a legendary Italian nameplate whose powertrain was designed and engineered by Americans, and it’s being built in Mexico. After a 45-mile loop in the hills north of Los Angeles, the Fiat 500e is one of my favorite EVs for one simple reason: it’s a blast to drive. That it can be bought for a reasonable amount of money per month just adds an extra scoop of gelato.
The 500e – the e stands for electric – is the first all-electric vehicle to come from the Fiat/Chrysler operation, and the 500’s diminutive size made it an easy choice for swapping to battery power. Spurred by $7,500 government tax incentives, California laws requiring EV sales and the drive by automakers toward increasingly stringent federal mileage mandates, EVs have bloomed like crocuses. So far this year, more than 9,000 EVs have been sold.
The penalties of switching a car from gasoline to battery power come from three problems: weight, range and cost. While adding weight is almost always a bad thing when it comes to vehicle dynamics, Fiat engineers were able to use the 600-lb., 24 kWh lithium-ion battery pack to stiffen the car's chassis. Engineers bolted the battery pack – which is liquid cooled and heated to maintain performance — to the chassis, stiffening it 10 percent more than its gasoline-powered brethren. Those 600 lbs. sit low in the car, reducing the vehicle’s center of gravity, making this thing a blast to carve around canyon roads. That weight also helps balance the car, with 53 percent of its mass now over the front wheels and 47 percent on the rear, which is more like a sports car than the two-thirds/one-third split common among front-wheel-drive econoboxes.
The great handling is coupled with the instantaneous 147 lb.-ft. of torque provided by the 111 hp electric motor. A sprint from 0 to 60 mph takes 9.1 seconds, according to Fiat, and it feels a bit quicker than that from behind the wheel. The Fiat 500e received an industry-best EPA rating of 108 MPGe, with a certified range of 87 miles per charge. Typically, Fiat says, drivers will see a range of greater than 100 miles in city driving.
On my 45-mile loop that began with a full battery charge, I saw the range drop precipitously while stuck in typical stop-and-go L.A. traffic, shrinking from 87 to 50 miles after traveling just five miles in 45 minutes. But once the traffic thinned, and I was carving up and down Mulholland Drive alongside a slew of motorcycles, the range increased due to regenerative braking. When I got out of the car after reaching my destination, the dashboard display estimated I had 55 miles left.
If I had to nitpick the 500e, I'd start with the brake feel. I have yet to sample any vehicle – EV or gasoline-electric hybrid – with regenerative brakes that felt anything like the feel from standard friction brakes. At the first hit of the brake pedal there’s a hard response and barely any notice of slowing before things start to grab. On the positive side: You do get used to the quirky feeling. And the brakes actual work very well, once you get past that initial hit.