It's no secret that I'm very fond of the Fiat 500 line of cars — the Abarth version is one of my current favorites. So I was very curious to see how the electromorgrificationizating of the 500 would turn out, and the result, the 500e, is quite impressive.
Fiat's managed to make a really engaging and useful car, even if it's basically like a really engaging and useful gasoline car that you could never fill up past 1/3 of the tank.
Almost every automaker building electric cars will at some point say something along these lines: "We're not trying to make a great electric car, but a great car, period." When their PR reps tell you this, they gets faraway look in their eyes, as the innumerable PowerPoint slides of a bold, pollution-free future populated by sexy people cavorting in jumpsuits fills their heads. And, in many ways, this is true in the case of the 500e. It's a stylish car with much better weight balance than the gas version, it has great initial acceleration, is incredibly quiet, and is, by and large, maintenance-free. Plus, for an electric car, it has a very respectable range of about 87 miles, which I was partially able to confirm on my drive.
(Full disclosure: Fiat wanted me to drive one of these so badly they went through all of the considerable engineering to adapt their car to electric power, tested it, built some, and then invited me out to a Beverly Hills hotel to eat fancy foods while they talked to me about it. All for me. I think.)
That respectable range of nearly 90 miles, however, still sucks when compared with an ICE car. The 500's entry-level model, for example, not only costs half as much as the 500e, but is capable of going 300-400 miles on a tank of gas, and able to refill that tank in minutes, pretty much anywhere. We're not there yet with battery technology or infrastructure. For example, there's a vast number of people for whom the 500e could be a terrific daily-use car. Younger urban single folk, who are interested in style, drive under 40 miles/day, and give a to-be-composted shit about the environment. The problem is a great many of these people live in city apartments with street parking, and there's no good solution yet for how they could charge their cars overnight. A lot still has to happen before electric cars, even as appealing as this one, become viable alternatives to the dino-corpse-burners.
I had a chance to compare the 500e against two electron-burning competitors: the Nissan Leaf and Ford's Focus EV. I see Leafs around a fair amount, but I've never actually seen a Focus EV on the road — but that may be simply because the Focus EV looks almost exactly the same as a regular Focus hatch. While driving all three of these cars, I realized something a little disturbing: if electric drivetrains become the eventual norm (and that's entirely possible, whether battery powered or not) we're going to be losing a huge differentiator for cars — engine character.
All the EVs I drove exhibited remarkably similar drivetrain characteristics: incredibly quiet, terrific off-the-line torque, steady, smooth acceleration, and a very small number of moving parts for minimal maintenance. Those are just electric motor traits.
You'll find the same qualities in a nice escalator or elevator as well, since most everything that uses one or more electric motors will likely have these characteristics. When I think about how different cars' engines feel now, from the rev-hungry, wonderful-sounding 1.4 turbo in the 500 Abarth to the lower-revving, powerful V8 of something like a Mustang GT, I think this new possible homogeneity is a real loss. I suppose that'll make car makers have to focus more on the other aspects of the car, but when it comes to engines, the future is looking, fast, efficient and boring.
We may get lucky, though — I spent most of my time trying to convince the engineers to make the 500e Abarth version (eBarth) shoot showers of sparks. And maybe have one of those Jacob's ladders that reanimates corpses into monsters.
I already like the 500's friendly and plucky look, and I'm pleased they didn't try and either tech it up too much or make it too leaf-encrusted enviro-dippy. They did change the front and rear air dams for aerodynamic and cooling reasons, and incorporated a dot pattern theme that, along with the color orange, is the 500e's design signature. I was happy to see orange used as the car's accent color, as I appreciate how hardworking a color orange is (traffic cones, prison jumpsuits, don-shoot-me-vests) and I'm getting sick of the greens and electric blues always used to denote electric models.
There's new low-drag wheel covers as well, a new rear roof spoiler, new side sills, and some distinctive paint colors/graphics, but that's about all that distinguishes the 500e from its combusting siblings. It's enough to spot it, but not so much as to be really showy. The 500 design I think is strong enough as it is, and I think it works as well in this context. I think people who like the 500's looks will prefer to have something that looks like a 500 first, and an electric car second.
Again, it's pretty close to the stock 500 interior, with a few key changes: a push-button gear selector, which reminds me of the Edsel or early Corvair, though I don't think Fiat was going for either of those, and a full-color round LCD display in the main instrument binnacle. This display is very nicely done, and appear very rich and high-tech while still being very readable. It fits the character of the car well, and makes you feel sufficiently world-of-tomorrow without resorting to pizzas in pills or jetpacks.
The 500e I tested had the white interior package, which, along with the orange accent color, looked great and was a nice counterpoint to the seas of grey and black that most cars end up slathering their interiors with, like a cloud's funeral. The bright interior made the small but tall interior feel airy and open, though it was already getting dirty by the time our test drive was over. It'd be hard to keep clean, especially for discerning Sloppy Joe aficionados like myself.
The addition of the battery pack does encroach a bit on the interior as well. It's almost entirely under the car, but it does cause the floor of the cargo area and rear footwells to creep up an inch or so, which makes the already non-vast rear seat area even more cramped. I'm not a big guy, but even I felt crunched in the back seats, and I didn't feel quite so in the gas versions. So the 500e may be better thought of as a 2+2.
There's also a strange little hidden cubby under the rear drivers' side footwell. I'm not really certain it's an "official" stowage area, but it seems great for smuggling a single well-wrapped kidney or something.
The big shiny metal cylinder that's the engine for the Fiat 500e makes 111 HP (10 more than the base combusting model) and 147 lb-ft of torque at an easy-to-achieve 0 RPM. That means that while it's by no means the most powerful car out there, from 0-5 feet or so almost nothing can touch the 500e. Seriously, if you wanted to drag race an Aventador from a standing stop to the bumper of the car in front of you, you'd win. After that, not so much, but it still manages to get to 60 in a respectable 9.1 seconds or so.
Being a gearless electric motor, the motor is extremely linear and progressive in its power delivery, so everything feels steady, smooth, and relentless. It's like a nice constant pushing feeling, accompanied by a very slight whine from the motor. It's also worth noting that there's no "ECO" mode in the 500e — the performance and efficiency are based entirely on how you drive, and the full potential in both directions is available to the driver at any time.
Yes, the batteries do add about 600 lbs of weight, but the car does not feel slow or ponderous at all.
The ride doesn't differ all that much from a normal 500, despite the extra weight. It's comfortable, a bit on the stiff side, and the short wheelbase can make things a bit pitchy on rough surfaces, but for the most part it's good. There's minimal road noise, and, in the electric version, hardly any engine noise, so the car can be a very calm, quiet space, which is not a bad thing when faced with a tedious, traffic-filled commute.
Interestingly, this is one of the few cars I've driven that are electric converts from gas models where the handling characteristics get actually improved. The original 500 has a very nose-heavy weight distribution of 63/37 front to rear, while the 500e has a nearly optimal 53/47. My idiot savant readers may recall that that's the exact same weight distribution as the wonderfully-handling FR-S. Plus, all those 600 lbs of heavy batteries are placed in a big, long, shallow box under the floor of the car, which keeps the center of gravity very low, especially nice for such a short-wheelbased and tall car. That big battery box also makes the car's structure 10% stiffer.
That's a lot of perks to be had from a big, heavy box of reacting chemicals, and the result is that the car feels really planted and controllable. It's heavier than the stock 500 or the Abarth, sure, but at no point did I feel like I was wrestling a baby hippo driving it. The 500e handles very satisfyingly, with minimal understeer (at least on the public roads I was on — I'd love to get this on a track and really try to push it) and a general well-planted feel. And that's all on hard efficiency tires.
The goals of braking on an electric car are different than on a conventional car, and as a result the brakes on the 500e are not really like anything I've even driven before. Braking is a process of taking speed away from the car, and then finding something to do with all that excess energy. Most cars just waste it as heat, occasionally putting it to use on race cars by having the brake discs glow a very pleasing cherry red.
On an electric car, that energy is harvested and put back into the battery, which is a very satisfying idea and results in real gains in battery range. The 500e employs this to such a degree that the vast majority of the braking is done with the motor being turned like a generator, providing resistance from engine braking. The actual brake pads don't even come into contact with the rotor until below 8 MPH (or in a panic stop).
So, this means brake feel is a bit unusual at first, but it always seemed to stop the car effectively, and put lots of kinetic energy back into the system. Plus, I suspect brake pads are going to last a really long time on these.
This one's tricky, because there's not really a gearbox. Well, there is, but one of the engineers called it a "one-speed" transmission, and I guess there's reverse as well, but in reality, those buttons aren't lying. Push it and go. Like a horizontal elevator.
There is a drivetrain locking system when you push the P button, and Fiat also took the time to make the 500e pretend it's a conventional, automatic gasoline powered car, creeping forward when you take your foot off the brake like most autos do. It's a cheat, because the electric motor doesn't idle like a gas motor, but it's surprisingly handy for long, slow traffic.
The best way I can describe the sound of the 500e's engine at speed is to imagine the sound of a jetliner taking off somewhere far in the distance. That's sort of what the electric motor sounds like at speed.
It's not bad, but with the Abarth in the 500 lineup, it just can't compare. At all.
There's a decent sound system with Sirius satellite radio and all that as well, so there's plenty to listen to instead of the nonexistent engine note.
This car is a big rolling wad of electronics, so it's pretty full of toys. That round (well, masked to be round) TFT dash display screen is very well-done, and the UI and graphical qualities of the displays are extremely high-quality. Compared to the Leaf's dash, with its VFD and monochrome matrix displays, it's like comparing an iPhone to a Game Boy. It feels like something that would have been a show-car indulgence just a few years ago.
There's also an included TomTom navigation system with special customized software for the 500e, showing the available range of travel in big circles and calculating routes to the nearest charging stations. It's not integrated into the dash, and I did find the little screen did annoyingly intrude on the view out the windshield, especially when doing things like parallel parking.
Perhaps most novel is the iPhone/Android app that comes with the car and allows control of many of the car's functions (including the horn, for dog-terrorizing) remotely from the owner's phone. Via the app, range can be checked, the car's heat or a/c can be turned on, charging can be started/stopped or managed, and more. No R/C functions yet, but here's hoping for an update.
When it comes to charging, Fiat's put some thought into it, and provided a dash-mounted LED charge indicator so you can easily check the progress of your car's charge from the outside, and a reasonable distance away.
Really, this is the hardest one to figure out. Most obviously, you're not spending money on gas, and that's a big deal. The range for the 500e is said to be 87 miles, according to the EPA, or 116 MPGe. Now, MPGe is sort of a weird metric, but essentially what it's doing is comparing the energy potential of the car's batteries to the energy potential of gasoline. The result is that all those 600 lbs of batteries in the 500e have essentially the same amount of energy in them as 3/4 of a gallon of gas. That figure should make you more impressed with gasoline as an energy source than anything else. Really, we'd never be here if we didn't have such a potent source of energy as gasoline, letting us be wildly inefficient in our mechanical mobility infancy.
Still, 87 miles on batteries is no joke, and I drove 53 or so miles in the car, and the indicator told me I still had 40 miles of range, which totals 93 miles. Impressive. It's a bit tricky to trust the range computer, though, as it constantly adjusts and re-adjusts as you drive. My range bounced between 55 and 30 before settling on 40 when I stopped.
It's a usable range, absolutely. Still, it means you can't just hop in the car and go to Vegas whenever you get the urge, but Fiat can sort of help by providing with the car up to 12 free days of car rental from Enterprise for your longer trips. Not bad, and while you can't be totally spontaneous, it's not a bad gesture.
The Fiat 500e costs about twice as much as the base level Fiat 500 Pop: $32,500. That seems a lot for a small city car, but it's on par with other similar electrics, and by the time you go through the Byzantine system of rebates and Federal programs, the price can come down to something around $23,000. Oh, and you can only buy it in California right now. Sorry, most of the US!
There's all manner of lease options as well ($999 down, $199/mo for 3 years), and many are very reasonable, if you're into that sort of thing. In the end, if you're in a certain very specific set of circumstances, this car could be a really appealing and financially-wise option. For most other people, the infrastructure still isn't there. Yet.
Engine: Permanent-magnet, three-phase synchronous drive electric motor
Power: 111 hp and 147 lb·ft
Transmission: Single ratio transaxle
0-60 Time: 9.1 seconds
Top Speed: Limited to about 90 or so, I think?
Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 2,980 LBS
Seating: 4 people (though the ones in back won't be thrilled)
MPG: 122 MPGe City/108 MPGe Highway/116 MPGe Combined
Range: 87 miles/charge
Charge times: ~30 min Fast Charge 240V/24 hours 120V
MSRP: $32,500 (Various rebates can get it down to about $23,000)