The Fiat 500e may just be the best electric vehicle on the market right now. It's certainly the most fun EV since the Tesla Roadster — and if you live in certain California communities, it's a bargain to boot.
There are basically two kinds of electric cars: ones that automakers are trying to get the public interested in to show how green they are, and ones that automakers build in order to satisfy local laws. Cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt are the first kind: global animals that are as much research tools as commuter cars, designed to be the first wave of a new kind of "clean" transportation. And then there are the second kind, cars like the Toyota RAV4 EV and Chevrolet Spark EV, built thanks to a California regulation that requires automakers to sell a certain percentage of "zero-emissions vehicles" in the state if they want to avoid hefty fines. The new-for-2013 Fiat 500e is one of the latter EVs, something often called a "compliance EV." It's currently sold only in California, and the head of Fiat himself has spoken of the car with surprising disdain. This is unfortunate, as the new electric Fiat is a fantastic little car — one of the best small cars I've ever driven, electric or otherwise.
More Than a Power Wheel for Grown-Ups
Start with a Fiat 500 minicar, remove the engine and transmission, then replace them with a 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, an 83-kW electric motor and a single-speed transmission. What that translates into is 111 horsepower and 147 pounds-feet of torque. That's more than the gas-powered base model's 101 hp, 1.4-liter four-cylinder, but less than the fire-breathing Abarth model's 160 turbocharged hp. The thing is, those 147 pounds-feet of torque all happen at zero rpm. That means off-the-line acceleration is strong, it feels seriously quick and it's enough to burn the front tires for a good 5 feet if you turn off the traction control and mash the accelerator. The fact that it weighs 600 pounds more than a base 500 means it's not likely the quickest of the bunch, but you wouldn't know that from driving it. With a complete lack of engine noise and a seamless rush of electric grunt, the 500e feels significantly quicker and more powerful than it actually is. This is an astonishingly fun little car, both in spite of and thanks to its electric powertrain.
Handling is another strong point for the 500e. The rear axle is the beefier unit from the Abarth, and staggered-width tires (16 x 5.5 inches up front, 16 x 6.5 inches in back) combine with stiffer springs to make for a tight-handling, electric-go-kart feel. The 500e pushes in corners, understeering due to the considerable weight addition, but handling is truly impressive. The lithium-ion battery pack is flat and sandwiched under the passenger compartment from front to back. Putting that much mass at the lowest point in the car makes it feel planted and remarkably stable. It rides amazingly smoothly for such a short-wheelbase vehicle, soaking up bumps with ease and not disturbing the passenger compartment. At highway speeds, the car is eerily silent; the only sounds are wind rush and tire noise, neither of which is all that loud or intrusive.
The brakes are strong and incorporate a regenerative mode that is completely undetectable. Most EVs have a special "low" gear setting on the transmission selector that activates more-aggressive regeneration (like "B" on a Toyota Prius or "Low" on a Chevy Volt), but the 500e makes do only with Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive, available through buttons where the gearshift would be. Regeneration occurs when you lift off the throttle and, more energetically, upon light brake application, using the electric motor to slow the vehicle instead of the actual brakes, which blend in seamlessly as you call up more braking force. In other words, it feels just like a normal car — an exceptional accomplishment for an EV, and one that few automakers have been able to duplicate.
Fun, But Efficient Too
People generally do not buy EVs because they're fun but because they're efficient, because they're supposedly "greener" than gas-powered vehicles and because they can save money on fuel. The 500e is right up there with the best of them, rated at 116 mpg-equivalent by the EPA. Because nobody understands what mpg-e is, however, a better descriptor might be range with a fully charged battery — rated conservatively by Fiat at about 80 miles in mixed use or more than 100 miles in city driving. The EPA rates its range at 87 miles. Over time, I found Fiat's estimate to be an accurate one. Taking possession of the car with just 21 miles of range left in it (according to the multifunction LCD screen in the gauge display), I drove it home on back roads 17.5 miles — and had 16 miles of range left when I got home to plug it in. As I continued to drive it over the next several days, charging it up again and again, the estimated range began to climb. What started as a maximum of 80 miles of predicted range on a full charge at the start of my test had climbed to 93 miles by the end of it. I have no doubt the car can go 100 miles or more in city driving, when speeds are kept to 60 mph and lower. Range anxiety is fairly minimal, and if you have to go farther than 100 miles, each new Fiat 500e comes with a complimentary voucher for 12 days' worth of rental cars at Hertz or Enterprise.
Recharging takes just less than four hours on a dedicated 240-volt system, or nearly 24 hours on a standard household 120-volt outlet. The 24-kwh battery is large, bigger than the 16.5 kwh one in a gas/electric Chevy Volt and the same size as the one in the Nissan Leaf. The difference between the Fiat and Nissan, however, is that the Fiat's battery is liquid cooled and heated, the better to maintain longevity and performance, whereas the Nissan's is cooled by ambient airflow. Like other EVs, there's a built-in timer function: Set it to start charging late at night, when electricity rates are cheapest, and you can save even more money.
But how much does the car itself really save you? At a national average of 12 cents per kwh for electricity, it should cost no more than roughly $3 to fully charge the 500e, and with a 100-mile range, that works out to about 3 cents per mile to operate in the city. Compare that with a base, gas-powered, manual Fiat 500, with its 31 mpg in the city and 10.5-gallon fuel tank: At a national average of $4/gallon, it costs $42 to fill the tank, and you could theoretically go a maximum of 326 miles on it in the city, costing you 13 cents per mile. The EPA says you can save nearly $6,000 in fuel costs over five years, which seems a little optimistic unless fuel prices become dramatically higher, but there is indeed savings to be had.
Fun to Drive, Fun to Look At
The 500e is something of a caricature, a cartoony little car that exudes playfulness in its styling. Outside, a few styling tweaks give the car away as a 500e: a new front bumper, unique wheels, and orange or white trim colors (depending on the body color you choose) show this isn't the standard 500 or even the sporty Abarth. The enhancements reportedly improve aerodynamic efficiency by 13 percent overall.
The same playfulness is found in the interior, which in the 500e can be either dark gray or white, both with orange trim. Leather seats are standard. The dark color is definitely the preferable color choice to my eyes; the white and orange alternative looks a bit too Creamsicle. Controls are all familiar, with only the aforementioned missing shifter standing out as unusual. As in other 500 models, the seats are unusually tall and do not adjust down far enough for anyone taller than 5-foot-11 to fit without their head brushing the headliner; the passenger seat does not adjust for height at all. Those seats are also rather firm and flat — not conducive for aggressive driving. Thankfully, space is tight enough in the 500e that you won't be rattling around in the interior anyway. The backseat is the perfect place to put people you hate.
As quirky and fun as the 500e interior is, there is some room for improvement. Seat comfort is one, but the multimedia system is the bigger one. An ancient-looking radio is the only option, and it's one of the worst systems I've tried in a long time. It sounds fine, but its extremely limited function and capabilities are embarrassing, especially for a company that now has access to the industry benchmark Chrysler Uconnect system.
The rest of the 500e's electronics are far more impressive. The central round gauge cluster is one big LCD with multifunction options, able to display vehicle status, charge level, driving style (eco-friendly or not), efficiency numbers, and even instant motor-power output. An available remote smartphone app lets you control and monitor the car's charging. A large lozenge-shaped plastic display on top of the dashboard lights up when the car is plugged in to charge, lighting up any of five bars to show charging progress, like a cellphone. It's visible from anywhere around the car, and is a great visual confirmation after you've plugged the car in.
No crash-test ratings are available for the electric 500e. The normal Fiat 500 scored mixed ratings in both National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests. Buyers worried about driving such a tiny car amid the Chevy Suburbans on American highways should know that the car comes with front, side, curtain and driver's knee airbags. A rear park assist system and electronic stability control are also standard. See safety specifications listed here.
500e in the Market
The question of how much the 500e costs is a tricky one and depends entirely on geography. The sticker price is $32,600, including an $800 destination charge. My test car had an optional $495 eSport Package, which included orange mirrors, a body stripe, 15-inch aluminum wheels and smoked head and taillights for a total of $33,895. There are a few caveats, however: You can only buy this car in California, which is both a good and a bad thing. The 500e qualifies for a $7,500 federal income-tax credit, plus another $2,500 from the California Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. If you live in the San Joaquin Valley, you could qualify for another $3,000 rebate as part of that area's Drive Clean! initiative. Add in Fiat's own $2,000 incentive currently being offered, and suddenly that $33,895 car has dropped to just less than $19,000, or the price of a nice gas-powered 500 Lounge trim. Of course, this assumes you qualify for all the credits and rebates as well — the federal $7,500 is an income-tax credit, not a rebate, so whether or not to include it in the calculation is up to you. Alternately, you could pick up one of the lease deals Fiat is offering, as well, at $999 down and $199/month for 36 months. Build one for yourself here.
Competing electric vehicles are more numerous than they once were. In terms of size, the Smart ForTwo ED is the most direct challenger, but is nowhere near as entertaining to drive nor as comparatively spacious. Chevrolet is offering an electric version of its Spark minicar in California, as well, which might be the 500e's best direct competitor. It's cheaper than the 500e and has four doors and four seats, similar range and, most interestingly, a whopping 400 pounds-feet of torque right off the line, good for a zero-to-60 time of 7.5 seconds.
If you're looking to grab that California carpool-lane permit, the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt should be on your list. Both offer comparable efficiency (albeit it's more limited with the Volt's smaller battery and backup gas engine), and considerably more utility with actually usable backseats and superior multimedia systems. With all the California credits thrown in, the Leaf and Volt come out to be similarly priced to the 500e, as well. See how the 500e stacks up against competitors here.
When it comes to the fun-to-drive factor, though, no EV short of a $70,000 Tesla Model S even comes close to matching the 500e's skills.