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

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

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.

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

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

Acceleration is smooth and the car holds the road well, with its added weight as low in the chassis as it could go.

The 83-kilowatt (111-horsepower) motor puts out 147 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels, and Fiat's drivetrain engineers deliberately retained the ability to chirp the inside front wheel while accelerating hard around curves.

93 miles of indicated range

In balmy California weather, our orange test car started out with an indicated 93 miles of range on the odometer.

Climbing the hills aggressively for 9 miles chewed through an indicated 33 miles of range, and switching on the air conditioning cut another 9 miles of range.

But we gained those miles back on the downhill stretches, even at freeway speeds. By the end of our drive, which totaled almost 60 miles, the cars still showed more than 30 miles of range.

The suspension of the electric 500 is firm, but not harsh. Even hard cornering didn't produce any squeal from the tires, and we experienced unexpected directional changes only a couple of times during cornering across angled ridges in the road.

But the 500e retains the 500's sporty minicar character, and we think existing 500 owners--at least those who don't drive Abarth models--will find it fun and punchy behind the wheel.

We agree with the assessment of the development team, which said the 500e is sportier than a standard 500--but not nearly as much of a "hot hatch" as the raucous 500 Abarth.

Aero effects

To maximize electric range especially on the highway, Fiat engineers devoted a considerable amount of time to reducing the little car's drag coefficient.

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

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

In addition to a few undertrays and door sill extensions, they crafted a longer spoiler at the top of the tailgate to extend the roofline, new caps for the backs of the door mirrors, and reshaped the front and rear fascias--including golf-ball dimples that actually aid airflow at the front, according to vehicle line executive Lou Rhoades.

The 15-inch wheels (wider at the rear than the front) feature unique smooth covers, although the tires are a standard item fitted to certain 500 gasoline models.

There was only one proposed aerodynamic update that the team rejected, because it changed the looks of the car too much from a recognizable 500 shape. That was an extension of the rear fascia with a lengthened, smooth panel behind each rear wheelwell.

Otherwise, the total of the aero updates let the team meet the goal of a 0.311 drag coefficient--a low number for a car adapted from a short, stubby, relatively tall minicar.

The worth of these updates--and 140 hours spent in the wind tunnel--is proven by the fact that the overall Fiat 500 team is considering retrofitting several of them to gasoline 500s to boost highway fuel efficiency.

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

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

Male and female models?

Fiat offers the 500e in a variety of paint colors, with the most noticeable being a bright orange with a subtle metallic effect. That one comes with white interior and white exterior accents, including the tailgate spoiler, mirror caps, and front and rear fascias.

But the Fiat 500e can also be ordered in white, silver, and charcoal colors, which come with black interior and are far less distinguishable on the street from standard gasoline 500 models.

Fiat marketing executives suggested gently that the orange color might have more appeal to female buyers, while the more neutral colors might appeal to more men.

Speedy charging

Every Fiat 500e comes with a built-in battery charger that operates at 6.6 kilowatts, meaning that recharging the pack using a 240-Volt Level 2 charging station takes about 4 hours.

All Fiat Studios in California will be outfitted with four separate charging stations, Fiat says, though the company didn't indicate whether they would be available for us by all electric-car drivers.

And as is standard on most electric cars now, Fiat has modified the navigation system of the 500e to show all electric-car charging station locations.

Fiat engineers also said after the drive that the car was engineered from the start to accept quick charging at 480 Volts and 70 Amps.

That is, it requires only the addition of the necessary hardware to be capable of using new Combined Charging Standard (CCS) fast charging stations when they become available.

Aggressive pricing

Fiat has taken an unusual approach to pricing the electric 500, offering a $199 monthly lease payment with $999 down that's equivalent to the cost of the high-end gasoline 500 Lounge model.

The list price of the 2013 Fiat 500e is $32,500, and the car qualifies for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit, a $2,500 California purchase rebate, and a variety of other regional, local, and corporate incentives.

That bottom-line sticker cost is exactly twice the price of an entry-level Fiat 500 gasoline model. But, Fiat notes, the comparable Fiat 500 Lounge model starts at $20,700--far closer to the $22,500 "effective" price for the electric 500 in California after all incentives are realized.

In California, using the state purchase rebate of $2,500 to reduce the price still further, Fiat notes the cost could be as low as $166 a month with nothing down.

And taking the case to the extreme--a resident of the Riverside air-quality district, who gets an addition $2,500 rebate--the cost could come down to $95 a month.

Overnight delivery

And because of the numerous model variations--several colors, the e-Sport package, and the sunroof--Fiat has set up two distribution centers in Northern and Southern California that can deliver a 500e with the right mix of options to any dealer in the state within 24 hours.

That lets buyers pick up their car the next day, where possible, without requiring dealers to keep more than a couple of 500e cars in stock for test drives.

Fiat will also install an 'Orange Phone' in every Fiat Studio that is qualified to sell the 500e (it expects every California dealer to qualify). That connects a buyer directly to a specialist who can advise on the complexities of purchasing electric cars, their various incentive programs, and the installation of home recharging equipment.

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

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

'500e Pass'

To alleviate range anxiety further--beyond the car's rated 87-mile electric range--Fiat is offering what it calls a '500e Pass' to every buyer of the electric 500.

That provides one day per month of free car rental points from Enterprise, which has 6,000 locations across the country, for trips that the 500e can't handle.

Buyers can accumulate rental time each year, and use them to rent a variety of vehicles, including in other locations. Even trucks can be rented, though for different numbers of points.

Battery warranty

Fiat warranties the lithium-ion battery for 8 years or 100,000 miles. The rest of the Fiat 500e carries a 4-year, 50,000-mile warranty.

Fiat also provides four years of unlimited roadside assistance for all Fiat 500e buyers, and 12 months/12,000 miles of free replacement for wear items like wiper blades.

All Fiat 500e models are built on the standard 500 production line at the company's assembly plant in Tolucca, Mexico.

Fiat provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable High Gear Media to bring you this first-person drive report.

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