2013 Fiat 500e Electric Car: First Drive

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The 2013 Fiat 500e may be a compliance car, but its engineers created an electric car that's so much fun to drive that seemingly they want it to be more.

And with remarkably aggressive pricing--the same $199 monthly lease payment as on a top-of-the-line gasoline 500--Fiat's marketers are trying hard to eliminate cost as a barrier to driving electric.

Last week, we drove a bright orange 500e over a varied 60-mile route that included Los Angeles freeways, suburban stop-and-go, and a lot of wonderful winding roads up and down the canyons of Malibu.

The Fiat 500e held its own on the road, handled and held the road as a small sporty Fiat should, and appeared to deliver a real-world range of more than 80 miles in temperate California climates.

California first

All of which means it's a shame that the 500e won't roll out nationwide as another addition to the burgeoning lineup of Fiat 500 minicars.

At least, not initially.

Fiat says it has a three-part rollout plan, with California its first destination, followed by a second phase that presumably includes the dozen or so other states that use California's emissions standards.

Fiat executives wouldn't detail the rollout plan, but they hinted at a broader third phase that might put the electric 500 into additional Fiat Studios, as their dealer showrooms are called.

We hope that happens. But we're not holding our breath.

Not an electric car?

Still, ater a full day of Fiat 500e immersion, we came away with the impression that the essential qualities of the Fiat 500e--smooth, torquey acceleration, roadholding closer to the sporty Abarth than the boulevardier 500 Lounge, and real-world range close to its EPA-rated 87 miles--surprised even its creators.

Fiat's marketing team kicked off its presentation to journalists by saying, "This is not an EV"--which, they explained, meant that they will market the car as a Fiat 500 first, one that happens to have an alternative powertrain.

Buyers of the 500e, Fiat says, will be those who are already predisposed to buy a 500, and are willing to accept an alternative powertrain.

Will the Fiat 500e be more than a low-volume car built at a loss by a very reluctant carmaker solely to comply with California rules?

Time will tell. But we're slightly more optimistic that it might be than we were before driving it.

2013 Fiat 500e electric car, Los Angeles drive event, April 2013

2013 Fiat 500e electric car, Los Angeles drive event, April 2013

Enlarge Photo

Punchy performance

The 2013 Fiat 500e boasts almost all of the standard equipment found on a top-of-the-line Fiat 500 Lounge model, but weighs about 600 pounds more. That's exactly the weight of the 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack.

Swapping out the engine and transmission for an electric motor plus power electronics, 6.6-kilowatt onboard charger, and the rest of the electric equipment was essentially a wash on weight.

And with the battery pack sitting in the floor from under the front seats to about a foot from the rear of the car, the 500e actually has better weight distribution (53-47 front-to-rear) than the standard car's 58-42.

The result is smooth acceleration off the line and a quoted 0-to-60-mph time of 9.1 seconds. We rather liked that there's no Eco mode on the 500e; it just wasn't, explained the product team, the right image for the sporty Fiat 500.

The entire liquid-cooled battery pack and drivetrain for the electric 500 is provided by Bosch.


2013 Fiat 500e live photos, 2012 L.A. Auto Show

2013 Fiat 500e live photos, 2012 L.A. Auto Show

Enlarge Photo

Braking feel

Fiat paid a lot of attention to the braking, which is where all of the energy regeneration comes from (unlike some specialist electric cars, in which lifting off the accelerator produces regenerative braking as well).

The goal, engineers said, was to replicate as much as possible the driving feel of a regular gasoline Fiat 500.

Outside of panic-stop and emergency situations, the brake pedal provides entirely regenerative braking down to 8 mph. No brake blending at all occurs until the car is almost at a stop, Fiat says.

This improves energy recapture, helping the car to achieve a combined EPA efficiency rating of 116 MPGe. (MPGe refers to the distance an electric car travels on the amount of battery energy equivalent to that contained in 1 gallon of gasoline.)

Fiat notes proudly that its highway rating of 108 MPGe is the best of any electric car sold in the U.S. The city number is 122 MPGe.

Better than base 500

The electric 500 clearly handles and performs better than a base Fiat 500 with its 1.4-liter engine.

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Comments (16)
  1. Being that the 500e actually has a price and doesn't sound like a lease only, I wonder if you may be able to buy them in other states? I'm sure California will get them first but eventually more dealers could at least order them.

  2. Those of us old enough to remember Fiats of yore know that it is still a "Fix It Again Tony". Fiat even admitted it was not designed from the start as an electric car. The LEAF is bigger, better and is a real EV - not a "compliance car".

  3. @William: The era of "Fix It Again Tony" Fiats arguably ended when they pulled out of the U.S. market in 1983.

    If you have data showing that the 2012-and-later Fiat 500 models have substandard reliability, please share it. Otherwise that's just an amusing but wildly outdated slur.

  4. I will admit freely that I am an employee of Chrysler. However, having driven this car extensively, it is reliable and fun, which you really can't say about too many electric cars.

  5. Very odd. Fiat executives whine in the press about how much they loath doing EVs and subsequently they bring one of the most competitive EVs so far on the market? Sounds like Fiat has bigger plans for this than mere compliance.

    Goes to show CARB regulations really work. Forces carmakers kicking and screaming into directions they would otherwise never have taken yet inspires them to do some remarkable vehicles like this 500EV and Fit EV.

  6. I wonder at the claim of $10K per car loss... Since that article was written two years ago and some economics have changed, it may no longer be accurate. Also, every unit has a total loss of the combined R&D costs as well as manufacturing until you actually get some sales, so what is the real world loss on a year or two of actual sales combined?

  7. I certainly find it hard to rhyme the $10K loss claim with the bargain basement lease price for this vehicle. Seems to me that the best pricing strategy for doing a compliance car at a loss is to charge the maximum price to move the smallest number of vehicles needed to comply. Instead Fiat has really priced this to move. Since Fiat is probably not interested in maximizing its losses it seems likely that this vehicle has more potential for profit than Fiat executives have led us to believe.

  8. A smart call by Fiat to turn the press loose in the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains to show an EV at it’s best. I’d prefer a “B” mode for lift-throttle regen, but otherwise the 500e seem to have hit all the relevant requirements to be the latest standard by which “affordable” EVs are measured. It will be interesting to watch the market pass judgment this summer when Chevy's Spark EV arrives. Choice is good.

  9. If I were a Riverside resident why wouldn't I pay 95 USD a month to have an electric runaround in the driveway. Looks to me that FIAT could sell shed loads of these cars and the with the increased volumes, god forbid, they might actually make a profit !!

    I live in the UK and my wife has a 500 which has been trouble free for four years, so looks like the quality issues have been licked.

  10. This is a great first step toward truly affordable fun EVs. I think cars such as this will be extremly popular in the cities such as SF.

  11. Has Fiat placed any limits on the number of 500e's it plans to sell in US for 2013? Builting 500e on the standard 500 production line should allow Fiat to scale for demand? Given the price & performance specs; sales could exceed that of Smart's EU built ForTwo ED for 2013.

    "Smart expects to sell or lease around 2,000 Electric Drives in the U.S. this year, a figure partly limited by European demand." http://www.greencarreports.com/news/1083538_2013-smart-electric-drive-to-offer-battery-leasing-in-u-s

  12. Does the 500e have a telematics system allowing for remote monitoring and control, as well as updating the charging stations map (similar to the LEAF)?

  13. Fiat's 500e website shows a mocked-up iPhone App screenshot (lower-right: Mobile Access) http://www.fiatusa.com/en/2013/500e/ Although not published, the App appears to offer similar remote monitoring & control as the Ford Focus, GM Volt, Nissan LEAF, Smart ED, & Tesla Motors Apps.

  14. John, does the Fiat 500e has the same interior size spec's as the gasoline version?

  15. @Stanislav: Yes, I believe so. I didn't specifically ask about rear-seat legroom, but IIRC, the load bay appears to be identical--although there's no longer a spare tire, just an inflator pump with tire sealant.

  16. Great review and car sounds like a great deal especially at this aggressive lease. The only downer to me is not have chosen the Chademo Fast Charger which are actually starting to happen now and are popping up in the greater L.A. are going from just 2 to 8 as of a few days ago. And so far, the Fast Charges are free.

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