Ed. note: Up-front, we’ll apologize Meredith Willson and anyone who’s ever performed in The Music Man.
It’s all about fun with a capital “F” and that stands for Fiat. And that rhymes with nothing that relates to electric cars. But more importantly it does not stand for any of that bad old stuff that Fiat used to stand for. The Fiat 500e is flat-out the most fun of the pack of electric cars that I have driven over the past two decades. It’s got the sportiness of the original EV1 with a hip Italian package.
Yes, it’s a limited vehicle, as is its gasoline-powered cousin. Ostensibly a four-passenger vehicle, the two-door Fiat 500 with either an electric or gas powertrain is really a two-passenger vehicle with some space for small people or children in the rear, particularly with average-size American males in front. Also, it really is a city car. The combination of the Fiat’s short wheelbase and American freeways full of big rigs and expansion joints is not something to be enjoyed long-term. Of course, the 500e solves that by offering an approximate 100-mile range (less at highway speeds, of course) to keep you from having to test your endurance in that environment.
The 500e’s natural habitat is the city. That is where the fun begins. The zippy and aerodynamic car gets low center of gravity created by its 24 kWh liquid-cooled/heated lithium-ion battery pack, which is located in the middle of the car to enhance its handling. As was disclosed recently, the 500e was largely engineered by Fiat’s supplier, . The company tailored a suspension with increased spring rates and unique front-strut and rear-shock tuning. The 16.3:1 electronic power steering is responsive, delivering a feeling more akin to the Abarth performance version of the 500 than its tamer standard trim. Some of that performance has to be attributed to the torquey 111 hp (83 kW) electric motor that drives the front wheels.
Fiat doesn’t shy away from quirkiness and there’s plenty here, not all of it as charming as the hard-charging performance. the push-bottom transmission is one. It doesn’t hamper the operation of the car, but it is definitely not a typical set up.
Fiat (and Chrysler) CEO Sergio Marchionne is famous for repeatedly complaining that his company would lose about $10,000 on each 500e sold. With that kind of attitude, the presumption among the automotive media was that the car would end up a weak representative designed to cut corners on cost rather than on the track. How wrong they were, as evidenced by the report above. But some evidence of cost-saving is evident. The connection for charging was placed in a location that allowed Fiat to keep the same basic body configuration as the gas version–behind the fuel filler door. The problem with that is most chargers are located and vehicles are designed for a charging port in the front of the vehicle. That’s leads to situations where you have to back the 500e into a charging spot. Not a problem, given its short wheelbase and tight steering, but a complication that shouldn’t have been necessary. Then there’s the key start. This was the first electric car I’ve been in that required a key inserted to start operation. With many gas-only and hybrids going keyless, it seemed like another shortcut.
The flipside of all of the complaints about the cost of making the vehicle is Fiat is retailing the vehicle for $32,500 (delivered price including destination charge) and offering discounted leases at $199/month. The lease puts it in line with competition from Nissan, Ford and Chevy.
Around town, as I’ve noted, the 500e is a blast. The range is long enough that most short runs won’t cause any stress. Or it may be that because the drive is so much fun, you forget to focus on range issues. Of course, being such a fun drive also means there’s a temptation is to use it hard and extend its use whenever possible. So looking for charging spots becomes part of the daily drive. On a typical day I left with 42 miles of range and decided to see what an hour of charging would do. After an hour it showed a 60-mile range, but that dropped quickly to 53 miles after a block or two. Just another bump on the road of getting used to living with an electric car. The good news with the 500e is however far you go or whatever direction you point it, you’re heading for a fun ride.
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