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.

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