Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review: 2014 Fiat 500e

2014 Fiat 500e downtown Portland, Oregon
Words by Andy Lilienthal. Photos by Mercedes Lilienthal

The Fiat 500e is one of the latest small cars to jump on the electric car bandwagon. Currently available only in California and Oregon, the 500e features 87 miles of range, Italian good looks, and plenty of character.

Fiat 500e front fascia

On the outside, the 500e looks very similar to any other Fiat 500. However, subtle things, such as the dimpled front and rear fasciae, side skirts, and unique wheels are giveaways that this subcompact is powered by gigawatts not gasoline. There are a few interior cues too, such as the pushbutton gear selector, that set this 500 apart from gas burners. But other than that, the 500e really just looks like, well, a Fiat 500.

500e center stackIf you like the inside of the regular 500, you’ll like its electric sibling (and ditto if you don’t). Unlike some other EVs, the 500e uses a traditional ignition: You put a key in a hole and turn it. It’s a bit strange, since there is no actual “cranking” of the engine. You turn it, it says it’s ready to go, you select your gear, and go. I think I’d prefer a push-button. Speaking of strange, the lack of a traditional gear select lever takes some getting used to. Mercedes didn’t care for this aspect, and I grabbed for a shift knob a number of times before getting it through my head that there simply isn’t one. Your “gear” choices are limited to either P, R, N, and D—no “B” (braking) mode like some other electrics.

There’s one good trait nearly all EVs have in common and that is instant torque, and the 500e feels like it has plenty to go around. Mash the throttle pedal and you’ll easily light up the front wheels. Maybe not quite as easily as the Chevrolet Spark EV (which has 400 ft/lbs of torque compared to the 500e’s 147 ft/lbs), but it still scoots easily. Getting up to freeway speeds takes hardly any time at all; acceleration is very brisk. For what it’s worth, Car and Driver clocked the 500e’s 0-60 sprint in 8.7 seconds—0.8 seconds slower than the Spark EV. Regardless, it still moves out well. The highway ride is respectable and the interior noise wasn’t bad. But the 500e’s most natural environment is the city.

The 500e’s diminutive size makes it perfect for zooming through, city traffic, up and down urban boulevards, and in and out of parking spots. It’s maneuverable, feels spry, and dare I say even a bit sporty. Of all the mainstream EVs on the market (not including the Tesla Model S), the 500e feels the most athletic. The car rides on 15x5.5- and 15x6.5-inch aluminum alloy wheels wrapped in 185/55/15 tires. Another unexpected delight came when it was time to stop. This is the first EV we’ve driven that has respectable brake feel. No weird, spongy pedal or strange engagement; they feel like regular-old (albeit good) brakes (with ABS, of course).

500e gauges
Back inside, the car feels tight and well built. I am not a fan of the traditional 500’s gauge cluster, but the 500e’s seven-inch LCD display is actually very good and simple to read. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the best in the EV segment because there isn’t too much going on. Yes, there’s just about any bit of information you’d like about the car’s charging system, eMPG, etc., but you don’t always have to stare at it either. Other than that, the interior is just like a regular 500. That also means the backseat is nearly unusable by an adult, the driving position is still too upright for my liking, the headrests are bit uncomfortable, and the infotainment system’s interface could use an LCD touch screen. FYI, the car’s charge cord is supposed to fit neatly into a compartment in the cargo area floor. Fat chance. We generally just threw the cord in the back. Mercedes wished the car had were a backup camera, variable intermittent wipers, and some sort of pedestrian-focused "get out of the way" horn, like the Chevrolet Volt.

500e interior
Photo: Fiat Chrysler Automotive
For those of you interested in the car’s techy bits, it’s powered by a 24 kWhr liquid-heated-and-cooled Li-Ion battery and a 83 kW electric motor making 111 hp and the previously mentioned 147 ft/lbs of torque. It does feature regenerative braking as well. Other creature comforts include heated leatherette seats, Bluetooth, a TomTom navi unit that plugs into the dash (in a quite annoying location), cruise control, and all of the other features you’d expect on a modern Fiat 500. When it’s time to charge the car, there’s a 6.6 kW / J1772-compliant charge system. A full charge will take about 24 hours on 120V household current or about four hours on 240V. No level 3 quick-charge ability on this one.

500e rear

The sticker price on our Granito Lucente (Granite Crystal) colored 500e is $33,095 before the host of incentives offered by the "gubmint." Our tester had the optional $495 eSport package that included orange mirror caps, body stripe, and black trimmed lights.

The 500e is arguably the most stylish and sporty of the small EVs on the market. It certainly is well built, solid, and quick. It’s a great choice for those looking for “regular car” looks and EV frugality. Plus, it looks like a Fiat 500, which in my not-so-humble opinion, is a good thing.

Fiat 500e headrests

500e charge port

500e motor

Fiat logo

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