2013 Fiat 500e First Drive Review
Fiat knows that it is a challenge to sell an electric vehicle to American consumers. Therefore, with the new 2013 Fiat 500e, which will initially be sold only in California, the automaker has attempted to predict customer pain points and has tried to remove the objections people cite when balking at the idea of electric car ownership. In explaining how the company has learned lessons from the EV makers that have come before it, Fiat says it has tackled four key consumer concerns: complexity, infrastructure, range, and price.
To make it easier to understand how Californians can benefit from EV ownership, the company has developed a website that assists potential buyers in determining what federal, state, local, and corporate incentives and rebates might be available to lower the cost of the vehicle, and walks consumers through the process of what they’ll need to do to take advantage of such programs. Fiat’s website also explains how to register the vehicle for carpool lane access. Additionally, Fiat dealerships that sell the 500e will have an orange hotline phone that puts a customer in immediate touch with a live operator to answer questions about the car.
Fiat addresses infrastructure concerns with a standard navigation system equipped with a charging station locator and a “range circle” for the map display that provides a good idea of how far the 500e can travel on its remaining charge. A free Fiat Access App allows the 500e’s owner to check charging status, manage charging, locate a charging station, pre-condition the cabin with heat or air conditioning in advance of driving the car, and more. It takes 23 hours to completely recharge a 500e using a standard 110-volt household power outlet. Use a 240-volt outlet, and it can be done in 4 hours.
As far as range is concerned, Fiat says a fully charged 500e will travel up to 87 miles before depleting its battery. And because some people might decide they want to take a road trip, for which the 500e is ill equipped, Fiat includes 12 free days of Enterprise car rental expenses per year for the first three years of ownership. This means that if 500e owners want to go to Las Vegas, they can, using a free rental car. Four years of 24-hour roadside assistance is included with every 500e, with no mileage restriction.
Finally, The 2013 Fiat 500e costs $32,500, double the price of a base 500 Pop. However, the maximum $7,500 federal incentive combined with the $2,500 California rebate reduces the price significantly, and some consumers may be eligible for additional rebates through work.
If a buyer prefers to lease, the 500e will be offered for $199 per month for 36 months with $999 down at lease signing, which is the same deal offered for the 500 Pop model. The financial institution writing the lease keeps the federal tax incentive money, but the person leasing the car gets the California rebate and any corporate rebates, which can be used to further reduce the cost of the lease, or can be pocketed and spent on plane tickets to Maui. Or gambling in Vegas.
Convinced yet? See what I think of this new EV after spending half a day running around Los Angeles in the Fiat 500e.
2013 Fiat 500e: What Makes It Special
Before I talk about what it’s like to drive the new 500e, it helps to understand how the electric version differs from a standard FIAT 500.
Starting with the car’s exterior, Fiat makes modifications that drop the car’s coefficient of drag by 13%, from 0.36 Cd to 0.31 Cd, adding five additional miles of driving range in the process. A deep front air dam, new side mirrors, lower body skirts, underbody panels, a longer rear roofline spoiler, a reshaped rear bumper cover, and flush-design aluminum wheels all contribute to the 500e’s ability to slip more cleanly through the atmosphere.
Inside, the 500e is equipped with a Thin Film Transistor (TFT) gauge and information display equipped with a large 5-stage battery charge meter that conveys information in a way similar to modern smartphones, as well as a large digital indicator of the car’s remaining range. The relationship between the two is not a 1:1 ratio. For example, after climbing a hill and driving the car more aggressively on a mountain road, the 500e’s range display dropped to less than half of the original indicted range. The battery charge meter, however, assured me the car still had 70% of its original charge. Thoughtfully, Fiat provides a separate battery charge meter that can be checked from outside of the car to quickly determine the car’s state of charge.
In place of a traditional gear selector, the 500e has push buttons sitting atop a jutting tower beneath the automatic climate control system. Fiat says that because the car is so quiet, it found that drivers would attempt to exit the vehicle without pushing the Park button. To resolve that problem, the 500e’s transmission is designed to automatically engage Park if the following three conditions simultaneously exist: the car is traveling at less than 2 mph, the driver’s seatbelt is unbuckled, and the driver’s foot is off of the brake pedal.
Additionally, the 500e is equipped with a pedestrian alert system. At speeds under 20 mph, the car emits a warning sound that can be heard from outside of the vehicle, and which is designed to make sure that pedestrians and cyclists realize that an electric car is operating nearby. The Fiat 500e is also equipped with an unusual feature that we found quite helpful on the streets of West Los Angeles: it beeps to alert the driver when the car approaches intersections equipped with traffic cameras. In practice, while driving in heavy city traffic, I found this helpful.
Fiat includes almost everything as standard equipment, including a TomTom navigation system that sits on top of the car’s dashboard, looking like an afterthought and impeding the view forward. The only options are a power sunroof, an eSport Package, and a choice between five colors: orange, white, black, silver, and gray.
Choose the orange paint, and the car’s exterior accents and interior are white. All other paint colors get black or white accents and a black interior. The 500e eSport Package adds orange exterior mirrors, orange accents on the wheels, an orange stripe on the outside of the car, and orange accents on the inside of the car. The car in the photos has the eSport Package.
2013 Fiat 500e: Getting the Juice Flowing
The new Fiat 500e works like other electric cars. The owner plugs it in, charges the battery pack, and drives it until the battery gets low again. The car never needs to visit a gas station, and produces no emissions. With 87 miles of range, the 500e best serves people with predictable driving patterns, and because a completely depleted battery takes 23 hours to recharge using a standard household outlet, it is recommended to obtain the Level 2 charger, which recharges the battery in 4 hours or less when using a 240-volt power outlet. Fiat says the 500e accelerates to 60 mph in 9.1 seconds, and can go 88 mph if necessary.
Instead of a traditional gasoline engine, the 500e is equipped with an 83 kW electric motor that makes 111 horsepower and 147 lb.-ft. of torque. As is common with electric cars, the torque is available as soon as the driver steps on the accelerator, making the 500e feel fast from a stop.
Fiat slips a liquid-cooled 24 kWh Lithium-ion battery underneath the car. The battery weighs 600 pounds, bumping the 500’s curb weight to 2,980 lbs. and improving the car’s front-to-rear weight distribution in the process. To accommodate the battery, the 500e’s suspension is redesigned to best manage the additional weight, and the car has a ride height that is an inch higher than other Fiat 500 models. The car’s structure is also updated for EV duty.
A single-speed transmission powers the 500e’s front wheels. The car is equipped with a regenerative braking system, but there is no driver-selected ECO mode because Fiat discovered that it increased driving range by just 3% and really altered the fun-to-drive nature of the car. As Fiat asserted during the car’s introduction: “We didn’t neuter this car.”
2013 Fiat 500e: Driving Impressions
Upon activating the Fiat 500e’s electric powertrain, the gauge display indicated a full battery and 91 miles of driving range. My drive route took city streets from Culver City, Calif., through Beverly Hills and up Coldwater Canyon Drive to Mulholland Drive, a twisty mess of crumbling blacktop that really ought to be an embarrassment to the wealthy denizens of the region. Then, the route took a short cut through Encino suburbs to a driver-change point in the San Fernando Valley. It was a cool morning, and I did not use the climate control system.
Why does any of this matter? Because according to EPA projections, the Fiat 500e will return 122 MPGe in the city, 108 MPGe on the highway, and 116 MPGe in combined driving. On this hilly and urban route, which was about 25 miles long, the 500e returned 111.2 MPGe, the range indicator dropped from 91 miles to 57 miles, and the battery charge meter indicated that we used 30% of the available juice.
Now that the housekeeping is out of the way, let’s talk about what it’s like to drive the Fiat 500e. Aside from a brake pedal that’s a little sticky and hard to modulate smoothly, a common characteristic with regenerative braking systems, and except for the extra weight associated with the battery, which generates extra body motion over dips and bumps and reveals certain handling limitations associated with the car’s low-rolling resistance tires, driving the 500e is like driving any other car.
Any other car that delivers all of its torque as soon as the driver depresses the accelerator, that is. Like other electric cars, the Fiat 500e is surprisingly quick when accelerating away from an intersection. It has no trouble spinning its low rolling-resistance tires, and the car feels athletic in the cut-and-thrust of city driving. Drive one like a normal person rather than an automotive writer, and except for the powertrain’s silence, there’s no real discernable difference between a 500e and other cars.
Once the 500e is moving, however, it doesn’t feel as strong as it does right off the line, but neither is the car slow. It powered into the hills above Hollywood with no trouble, and while I rode as a passenger, easily exceeded the 75-mph pace of traffic flow on the Ventura Freeway.
Fiat has done a good job of masking the 500e’s additional weight. Larger bumps and dips produce some extra body motion, making the car feel heavy, but on most paved surfaces the only way to tell that the 500e is carrying 600 extra pounds is by driving one back-to-back with a standard 500.
If there’s an unexpected limitation associated with driving the 500e, which Fiat positions as a fun-to-drive electric car, it’s the P185/55R15 low rolling-resistance tires. Pitch the 500e into a corner, and the tires give up early, the nose pushes wide, and the driver resists the urge to eliminate bodily fluids. When mentioning this to Fiat, the suggestion was that owners could swap out the standard rubber for something more aggressive, in exchange for some range, of course.
For the record, upon returning the keys to Fiat, and after my co-driver had checked Fiat’s claim of an 88-mph top speed and driven the car over another set of mountains, the 500e’s instrument cluster showed 40 miles of remaining range. Given where we had driven, and how we had driven, this was a genuinely impressive result.
2013 Fiat 500e: Conclusions
By all indications, the Fiat 500e is a viable entry in the expanding electric car class. The lease deal is cheap, the purchase price is competitive, and there’s no denying that this car has personality to spare. Seriously, park the 500e next to the homely Nissan LEAF, and which one would you rather drive? The Fiat is fun, too, but most electric cars are, thanks to their instantaneous torque and low centers of gravity.
The primary limitations here are the same as those existing for the standard 500, namely a lack of interior room and cargo space. Another limitation, one that afflicts all electric cars, is the issue of range and access to electrical outlets.
Following my drive of the 500e, I stood on a hotel balcony looking at the West L.A. skyline. So many cars, so many people, so many apartment buildings lining streets packed with parallel-parked vehicles. Where, I wondered, would a Fiat 500e owner without access to a private driveway or a garage with a nearby electrical outlet recharge this car? That is one hurdle to electric vehicle ownership that is yet to be solved by Fiat, or any other EV maker.
FIAT invited Autobytel and the author to a manufacturer-sponsored ride-and-drive event held in Los Angeles
2013 Fiat 500e photos by Christian Wardlaw