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2013 Fiat 500e, the cinquecento elettrico: Motoramic Drives

April 15, 2013

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.

2014 Fiat 500e
2014 Fiat 500e

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.

Brett Giem, chief engineer of the 500e, said all braking above 8 mph is first done via the regenerative system, unless there is some sort of panic stop requiring the anti-lock brakes to engage. The idea, Giem said, is to take advantage of the slowing vehicle to put as much energy back into the battery as possible. A full charge with a Level 2 charger (240 volts) takes less than four hours. Using a standard 110-volt household outlet you need 23 hours to get a full charge. If you want a Mopar-branded Level 2 charger, dealers will sell you one for about $2,000, including standard installation.

Giem has spent the past two years working on the 500e powertrain, soliciting ideas from hundreds of California EV owners, and he said Fiat tried to incorporate those suggestions into its first-ever EV. Because of range anxiety, “EV owners told us they want battery status at all times,” Giem said. “They want to know battery status when they are driving, and battery status when the vehicle is charging. So we’ve done quite a bit to keep drivers informed." Also, the car’s on-board computer references not only the last 100 miles driven, but also the last 10 and through some “complex algorithms,” according to Giem, can help predict battery range.

A 7-inch thin-film transistor instrument cluster shows all vehicle functions, battery charge levels and trip summary. Plus, each 500e is fitted with a Tom Tom navigation screen fitted on top of the dash just to the right of the instrument cluster. It displays charging stations as well as EV-friendly routes, power meters and battery driving-range indicators. When charging, a large LED display on the top of the dashboard lights up in 20 percent increments, allowing an owner to see the battery status at a glance, from a distance. “You can see the lights from outside the car even with sunglasses on,” Giem said.

Fiat developed a smart-phone app for both iPhone and Android users that gives vehicle status, allows managing the charging, has GPS enabled route planning and sends text-message alerts if something is wrong. Also, each 500e comes with four years of roadside assistance, just in case you do run out of juice along the way. And that big battery is guaranteed to last eight years or 100,000 miles.

The interior is much the same as other 500s, save for the push buttons used to engage forward, reverse and park. Likewise, the face and silhouette of the 500e is essentially the same, with some aerodynamic improvements that helped wring out five more miles of range. A front air dam, flush aero wheels, sleeker mirror housings, a larger rear spoiler and a rear fascia helped reduce drag by 13 percent.

All 500es come loaded with standard features and the buyer need only choose the vehicle’s interior and exterior colors, and if they want a sunroof or not. The Fiat 500e retails for $32,500, which is double the price of a base Fiat 500. But Fiat has worked to make the Fiat EV affordable. You can lease a 500e for 36 months and 15,000 miles per year for $199 per month, with $999 due at signing — the same price for a base, gasoline-powered Fiat 500.

In another marketing coup, 500e buyers will accrue rental car credits that can be used at any Enterprise outlet, acknowledging the fact that a small electric car might not be able to fit each buyer’s transportation needs all of the time. “Sometimes people might need a minivan or a truck,” Davis said. Fiat 500e buyers will get one day of car rental every month for three years.

As with most EVs built from gas models, the Fiat 500e will be available only in California to start, and Fiat hasn't committed to sales in other states yet. But a world car like the 500e deserves a much bigger stage.