First Drive and Full Details about the All-Electric Fiat 500e

By · April 12, 2013

Fiat 500e

Fiat 500e (Photo: Brad Berman)

Here’s the recipe for the 2013 all-electric Fiat 500e.

Start with a car platform decisively smaller than a Nissan LEAF. Offer two doors, a minimal backseat, and a merely adequate cargo space in the hatch.

Now, swap out the LEAF’s Japanese gizmo aesthetic with iconic Italian styling. The smaller platform cuts the LEAF’s weight by 600 pounds—but Fiat maintains a motor that’s the same size as the Nissan compact electric vehicle. Actually, the 500e is a pinch more powerful at 83 kilowatts (or 111 horsepower) rather than the LEAF’s 80 kw (110 horsepower).

“You get more kilowatts per pound. It’s literally accelerating faster,” said Brett Giem, the 500e’s chief engineer, when I spoke with him during my 43-mile drive in the car in Los Angeles on Monday. Based on the drive, I found the 500e noticeably quicker and more maneuverable than the LEAF. It was a blast tossing the small electric two-seater around the crowded city streets, hills and highways of L.A.

Fiat 500e

The motor is calibrated for some tire chirp on launch, a smooth ramp up to about 15 miles per hour—and then...it lets loose with a surge of quiet electric power. “The car loves 45 miles per hour,” said Giem. “It just lives there—based on driving dynamics, the ability to accelerate, and how it beats other cars on the road.”

Now, use a 24 kilowatt-hour battery pack (same size as the one found in the LEAF), but employ an active liquid-cooled system to ensure the batteries never get too hot or too cold. This maintains a steadier track on driving range, and charging times, regardless of the season. (A first hint that Fiat has an interest in selling the car beyond California, its first market?)

Happens to be Electric

In my drive of the Fiat 500e, I managed 43 miles of raucous mixed driving—speedy switchbacks through Topanga Canyon, along the Pacific Coast Highway, and through the streets of Venice—using 48 percent of the pack. That’s right: The very simply dashboard cluster, designed to be as normal as the gas version of the Fiat 500, clearly indicated percentage state of charge. In fact, everything about the car is designed to make its electric-ness incidental, according to Fiat.

Fiat 500e interior

“This is not an electric car,” said Matt Davis, head of Fiat brand marketing, over and over again. That was his cute way of explaining that Fiat 500 shoppers entering dealerships will get a pitch to switch to the EV. According to Davis, marketing the 500e to the EV crowd would be like using a “scalpel” to slice off a tiny fraction of a small market. He promised “no lab coats or hemp sweaters” in marketing campaigns. The idea, instead, is to openly cannibalize their own Fiat 500 internal combustion customers, convincing them that Fiat 500 fun when mashing gears and a hearing a signature exhaust note (especially in the Abarth version) is even more fun when it's quick, silent and free of emissions.

No eco modes.

No dashboard monitors (except for the Tom-Tom navigation device that comes standard).

No braking coaches or leaves for efficient braking.

Same amount of creep as in the gas 500.

No L or B gears (because engineers said the regen braking is already maxed out, even when not overly grabby.)

“Just drive,” said Giem.

80-Plus Miles, Real-World

Six-hundred pounds lighter than the LEAF, and with a liquid-cooled pack, I feel confident that the 24 kilowatt-hours of batteries will reliably deliver its E.P.A. estimated 87 miles on a single charge, or darn close. City mileage is 122 m.p.g.e., and 108 m.p.g.e. on the highway.

There is one noteworthy innovation in the dash. While it provides an estimate of remaining driving range (referred to as the “guess-o-meter” by LEAF drivers), Fiat designers add either an arrow pointing up to indicate that you are likely, based on how you’re driving, to beat that guess—or an arrow pointing down to indicate that you probably won’t get the guestimated remaining range in the battery.

A full charge via the car's 6.6-kW charger takes about four hours. No Quick Charge capability at this stage.

Unlike the Ford Focus Electric, the Fiat 500e stores batteries beneath the cabin, rather than eating into already limited passenger and cargo space. Ford plug-in hybrids and the Accord PHEV also take bites into trunk space. But Giem explained that Fiat fit the pack “low and aft” under the floor, starting at the front seats and extending a foot behind the rear axle, by raising the floor a half-inch and giving up a few inches of ground clearance. By virtue of the pack, the 500e is 20 percent stiffer (and 10 percent quieter than the gas 500).

Fiat 500e

It’s a very smooth and balance ride—even when making speedy cornering maneuvers—thanks to engineering finesse on the tuning of brakes, shocks and bushings. “We knew by the middle of last summer when we got done tuning our mule that we had this thing nailed,” said Giem. “We had the performance and efficiency better than we expected. It’s a credible car that we’re going to market to the masses.”

Giem’s previous role at Chrysler was program manager for the Dodge Ram Pickup—a change in job assignment competing for the title of most dramatic big-to-small guzzler-to-EV shift in the history of the auto industry.

The small lightweight format does bounce a bit over the road. Road noise is minimal. Highway driving is solid, but it’s clearly a commuter car with only reasonably comfortable seats, rather than a cushy long-distance cruiser. Visibility is generally good, although rear and side mirrors are small.

Engineers did a great job guarding passengers from any motor whine. It’s whisper quiet, in part due to acoustic glass used in the windshield—one of several innovations applied to the EV that will likely be carried to future versions of the gas-powered 500.

Fiat 500e

Fiat 500e (Photo: Brad Berman)

Cute, Fun and Normal

The only cues that the electric 500 is visually different than the gas versions are a few design flourishes. Brandon Faurote, head of Chrysler and Fiat brand design for North America, told me, “We didn’t want to shout electric.”

So, you’ll see what he calls a “dot matrix aesthetic” in a grill that drops to the bottom of the front and rear fascias, and the liberal use of an orange signature color. Faurote calls the electric’s design more "masculine and sinister"—but the car is too stylish and cute to be sinister. Imagine those plastic Croc shoes on wheels. The dashboard is simple, well-designed and highly functional. (Although, it takes a minute to get used to window buttons on the center stack, and seat levers in the middle, rather than positioned on the outside.)

Fiat uses the filler-door location in the back right to situate the charging port. That could cause some problems with charging cord management, but the car is small enough that most charging spots should not be a problem. There’s no light in the port, but the inlet materials are bright orange, making them visible in low-light situations.

Fiat 500e

How To Market

“We spent countless hours white boarding solutions to the major challenges facing electric vehicles,” said Davis, the head of marketing. What did he and his team come up with?

  • Price the vehicle at $32,500 but promise $2,000 off in dealership incentives. Take another $10,500 out in federal tax credits and a California rebate that drops the price below $20,000. Moreover, set the least at $999 down, and $199 a month—which, if you consider the $2,500 rebate—adds up to $0 down and around $170 a month (depending on much of the tax credit is applied). Pretty compelling. (Read Fiat's press release, in a pdf, about its pricing and retail strategy.)
  • Provide Fiat 500e owners, and lease holders, the opportunity to rent any vehicle at Enterprise for one day a month at no cost. Drivers can bank 12 days worth of rentals a year, mitigating worries that Fiat EV owners won't be able to take road trips a few times a year.
  • Install an orange phone hotline in every Fiat dealership to hook EV shoppers up with an agent knowledgeable about electric incentives and charging issues (rather than lame EV-ignorant local salespeople).
  • Finally: Make no big promises about sales targets. Put only adequate numbers of test drive units at dealership and set up distribution centers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with a commitment to make the specific desired model available to drive off the dealership lot in 48 hours.

Then, see just how many shoppers will buy or lease the most affordable, stylish and fun (but somewhat cramped) electric car on the market.

Comments

· · 4 years ago

Wayyyyy to small of a car....
FIAT ... Fix It Again Tony !!!
I would not trust them to build a reliable electric car...

· · 4 years ago

Back in January, I walked into one of the local shopping malls here in Tucson and was greeted by 3 Fiat 500s on display. I passed by the Arbath, the other sporty one with the ragtop sunroof and gravitated towards what could logically be assumed to be the entry level one. Two salespeople (a man and woman team) jumped up and invited me to sit down inside.

For such a small car, I was pleasantly surprised as to how roomy the interior felt (and I'm 6'3", 200+lbs.) The minimalist feel reminded me of the high quality yet purposely spartan feel of a 1960s era VW Beetle. I assume the original Fiat 500 of that period also had that interior feel.

One of the first things the salespeople wanted to emphasize was the safety factor and the airbag count (it's either 8 or 9 . . . I forget exactly) and that, despite the Italian name/styling, that it was a Mopar, built in the US. Mechanical reliability (they were the ones who mention spelled out the old "Fix It Again Tony" acronym before I could) was another selling point they wished to get across to me.

Needless to say, I had to mention that I would have hoped to see the electric 500e that day, more so than anything they happened to have on display . . . but I doubted that such a car would ever be available in any other market than California. In fact, I simply assumed nobody at the local Fiat dealership would even know that the 500e existed, much less this on-location shopping mall display crew who I happened to cross paths with.

To my pleasant surprise, though, the woman saleperson stated that she was familiar with the 500e and was happy to report that it could be brought to Arizona, if anyone here wanted to purchase one. We eventually headed over to her laptop and she brought up the official 500e web page and, while exact prices weren't listed there yet, the estimates claimed at that point closely coincide with ones quoted here in Brad's review.

I saved her business card and gave her my contact info. Further, I told her of my organization with the annual National Plug In Day here in Tucson each fall. If there is a floor model of the 500e in town in late September, I expressed my hope that her Fiat dealership would want to show it alongside Leaf's, Volts, Plug-in Prius' and other EVs we'll have displayed that day.

While it might not have the cargo capability that I would ultimately need (good excuse to get rid of a lot of my over-sized junk, though,) I have to admit that the retro styling of the 500, in general, is quite appealing to me. If the 500e really does become available to the non-California populace, it would something I would give serious consideration owning. With the liquid cooled battery, it could certainly take the wear and tear of multiple quick charges per day and stand up to the Arizona desert heat. All it really needs at this point to complete the package is a J1772/DC combo plug. The upcoming Chevy Spark EV will have that and Fiat should make it an option on the 500e.

· · 4 years ago

Looks like a nice car. The range is a nice change from all other non-Tesla EV makers who seem to see the 70s as good enough.

As a happy Focus Electric owner, I'd like to add a bit more to the discussion. I have to say the Ford trunk bashing is getting stale. Despite the battery hump in the hatch space, my FFE has exactly the same cubic feet (14.5) below rear seatbacks as a 2012 LEAF. If you pack it to the ceiling, the FFE has more space than 2012 LEAF. Yes, the new LEAF has a much larger trunk. But somehow 14.5 was fine for LEAF for 2 years yet is always a point of concern for FFE. Regardless, FFE has more hatch space than a Volt, and certainly more than the Fiat- I can't see numbers for the "e", but the other models have 9.5 cubic feet.

If you're going to compare Fiat and FFE on trunk, why not add it to the rest of the comparison? FFE's motor gives 107kW of power for 143hp. Granted it weighs 3640lb... if Fiat weighs 600 less than LEAF, it's around 2700lb? So Fiat weighs 3/4 as much as FFE, and has 3/4 as much power. Should drive as peppily as the FFE, which is great. FFE was the first BEV to come out with liquid thermal battery management. As far as driver interaction/ data, FFE splits the difference. Yes, there are butterflies to earn, regen graphics, driving coaches- but they can mostly be turned off. FFE doesn't give a numeric % battery remaining, but the graphic of a hollow battery with a blue fill (like a cell phone or laptop) is pretty accurate. I believe if the promised Ford Sync update ever comes out, the percent display will be added. As far as cost, sticker for FFE is $6700 more than Fiat. But FFE seats 5. Ford is currently advertising a 36 month lease for 0 down, 284/mo but some people are getting $200/mo if they put something down.

Fiat's plan to market this vehicle to shoppers who would otherwise be looking at another Fiat model is something Ford needs to hear. It's a much better approach than to do as Ford and say "We make this excellent electric vehicle, but it probably won't work for your needs"! Now whether the dealers toe the company line and try to sell this car is another question.

· · 4 years ago

80 kW is only 107 hp
http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=80+kw+

· · 4 years ago

Nice review Brad... They don't have any here yet but seeing as we have a pretty sizable fiat dealership near me I'll be on the watch for the 500e. Looks smartly executed. With a reasonable price, it should sell well. Too Bad Sergio is so down on them, but he's looking at it from only the green eye shade angle "I loose $10,000 on each of them I sell!".. Hopefully, he doesn't lose quite that much, and on another subject I hope they get the manufacturing cost of these battery packs down soon.

· · 4 years ago

Brad, could you supply some missing details, such as 0-60, 1/4 mi and even 200ft times?

· · 4 years ago

Sounds like a great little car. No fast charge is a deal breaker for me personally. I live in Oregon, we have 42 CHAdeMO stations with 11 more coming this summer. I have only used them a few time and they are very handy for longer trips. A 15-20 minute stop on a 100 mile trip is a nice stretch, a 3 hour stop is a hassle.

· · 4 years ago

I'm hoping, Patrick, that any new Level 3 EVSE installation will have multi-plug capability. While all Nissan Leafs and Mitsubishi i-MiEVs that are Level 3 capable have the Japanese CHAdeMO plugs, the next wave of EVs appear to be coming from European and US manufacturers . . . and all of them will be using the SAE J1772DC Combo plug. Since Chrysler/Fiat is among the vast majority of the non-Japanese OEMs aligned to the SAE standard, I wouldn't expect to ever see a CHAdeMO plug on a Fiat 500e.

It also appears that all these next gen J1772DC-equipped EVs will be featuring liquid cooled batteries, thus making them more suitable for multiple quick charges per day. Both Nissan and Mitsubishi caution in their respective owners manuals not to quick charge more than once in a 24 hour period, since their air cooled battery packs aren't designed to take that sort of abuse.

So, it's ironic that almost all the Level 3 EVSEs now deployed along US highways are set up to accommodate the two EVs that have air cooled batteries. As we witness Chevy, BMW and others rolling out their new EVs this next year (all of them, presumably, with liquid-cooled cells and, most certainly with non-CHAdeMO plugs,) there will be very few quick charging options available to them along the highways.

· · 4 years ago

Zero to 60 is 9.1 seconds--but of course with an EV it's about the quick launches. The 500e feels faster than that 9-second metric, and as I wrote, quicker than LEAF.

· · 4 years ago

Anyone know if this is sold in California Only?

· · 4 years ago

Bill,
Yes, according to my understanding this is initially a California Only model. It seems like a really neat little commuter car, even at only 2 passengers AND actually a solid "value" as an EV with this pricing structure. Our Leaf contract, as an early adopter, took $2000 down and is costing $407/month including tax here in Sacramento.

· · 4 years ago

Any news on availability in Europe?

· · 4 years ago

Bill,

They are only offering it in California initially, but Fiat said they would consider other markets in the future. Since this is strictly a low volume compliance car, I assume if they sell they sell the necessary amount of them quickly enough, then they won't offer it anywhere else. However if they have trouble selling any significant volume of them, like Toyota and Honda have with their compliance EV's, then they will consider selling them in some of the other "CARB Compliance States".

· · 4 years ago

Hey Tom - The Fiat 500e might have been conceived for compliance. But based on two days of conversations with Chrysler execs last week, once the green light was given, they started doing everything they could to make the car a success--well beyond compliance. Will they sell just ONE more unit than required by law? I don't know. But unlike Honda and Toyota, these guys are legitimately trying to make this a legit EV. Maybe even a surprise hit. I hope this happens. The price is very attractive--and so is the styling.

· · 4 years ago

Hey Brad,

I hope so too! It's a nice little car and reminds me of my MINI-E (which you know I loved). After watching how Toyota and Honda are handling their compliance cars I'm jaded a bit so I'll wait and see how Fiat treats this one. It would be great to see them put one front and center in their showrooms and have sales personnel there that actually know something about it rather than ask you "Why would you want one of those?" if you come in asking questions about it.

No matter how good any car is it won't sell if the company and dealers aren't behind it. This is a cool little EV with good range and aggressive pricing, if it gets support I agree it can be a hit. I hope that happens!

· · 4 years ago

It sounds very promising - the 2013 Leaf is out there leading the way, and I'm starting to see them more and more often. We hopefully will also see the Smart Electric Drive, and I hope that Mitsubishi is being coy about a replacement of the i MiEV. The more EV's the merrier!

Neil

· · 4 years ago

Couple of observations:

@Brad - I just don't get a "let's sell it everywhere" vibe from the facts so far. This smells like a compliance car, and as such it doesn't interest me, because it means Fiat didn't engineer the vehicles to sell in volume above unit manufacturing cost. If they had, they'd sell it everywhere to recoup as much of the development cost as possible. So $32.5k is just the "price it so someone in California will buy it" number (probably influenced by observing the dismal figures for Honda and Toyota), not something calculated to support a sustainable product offering.

I continue to be mildly aggravated by the press attention given to fake products like this, playing into these manufacturers' PR game. Nissan and Mitsubishi are truly selling BEVs for decent prices (or in Mitsu's case, insane/desperate fire-sale discounts) to all comers at dealers across the country, and maybe Smart will too (we'll see). Ford's Focus-E is priced pretty high for a BEV, but at least you can get 'em if you want 'em. Everyone else seems to be building BEVs strictly for CARB compliance, and making a virtue of necessity by milking it for whatever PR value they can extract. Far as I can tell, that includes Fiat.

@Benjamin Nead - "...wouldn't expect to ever see a CHAdeMO plug on a Fiat 500e." As I recall, Fiat E500s with CHAdeMO have already been sold in Europe. In fairness though, I think those were 3rd party conversions (Micro Vett? - had a little trouble finding the specifics, since I don't read Italian). I remain skeptical of CCS, as I suspect it was more about generating FUD about L3 to keep the Japanese from running away with the game while the EuroAmericans fiddled about getting their act together. Until I see Ford putting CCS on the Focus-E or GM show that the SparkEV's more than a compliance special, I don't see why I should give CCS a second thought, especially given the almost frightening lack of real world experience compared with CHAdeMO (we're talking about putting some godawful current levels in consumer hands, after all).

· · 4 years ago

No endorsement is coming from me in regards to either CHAdeMO or SAE J1772DC, vike 1108. I'm simply observing what I think is still a Level 3 format war coming up. Too many US and Euro OEMs have put their stamp of approval on the SAE system for it to die a quick death. Likewise, the Japanese guys have made enough CHAdeMO cars to see it fade away quickly.

It's going to be the smarter public EVSE manufacturers/installers who help solve it. Both of these Level 3 standards work off of 440V DC. An industry standard quick charger should simply have two different plugs on it.

Oh yeah, I forgot Tesla. I'm sure their thing is better than everyone else's, but now we've got two different plugs coming from them! Was the Roadster one so poorly conceived that they really had to design a new one for the S sedan?

· · 4 years ago

This car looks like a winner. If I didn't already have an EV, I'd sign up for this cute little car. In fact I'm still tempted to pick it up

· · 4 years ago

@Benjamin Nead

EV1-Drvr should chime in on this... Where has he been anyway? He is still in good health I hope.

Anyway he told me that the very NON-standard TSL-01 (they coined their own standard), was decided prior to the J1772. Fair enough. But another company would have made all future Roadsters (2010 and later, for instance) have a standardized connector, such as j1772 standard as soon as practicable, which of course they didn't and never changed it.. Other than having to replace connectors under warranty when they got hung up (me for instance).

Tesla themselves told me a slightly different story. They said that J1772 at the time the decision was made on the connector for the roadster was only 30 amps, and they wanted to charge at 70. J1772 now does 80. But I would have been satisfied with 30, in fact the only time my car has done 70 period is when I was in a Toronto mall looking at a TESLA S and then that was only for 40 minutes by the time all the Red Tape cleared. Even EV1-Drvr has admitted he never needs more than 30, even though he has a 70 amp evse.

So from these eyes, Tesla loves non-standards. Any roadster owner who used Tesla's basic charging solution ($2000 for their High Power Connector, and who knows how many more thousands to install it and deinstall it when it becomes vestigial) cannot use this on any other Tesla products. They could have used a standardized solution such as Nissan with the model S, but they have come up with a 3rd, again nonstandard plug, and then amazingly for Europe they are totally redesigning the opening and motorized door (seeing as they've had a near 100% failure rate with those faddish motorized door handles on the "S" in cold weather I'd assume these are a needless maintenance hastle as well) to shoehorn in a Mennekes connector, along with european specific 3 phase chargers.. So now they have 2 different cars.

I would have taken GM's approach and make everything J1772, and then with whatever dc port they chose, have an external Mennekes to port adapter, that way all the cars are the same, similar to the Nissan approach or the GM Spark EV. Many Europeans would be satisfied using the basic Americanized 16 or 32 amp @ 240 volts single phase, but if Germans or whomever wanted more they could go the external DC from 3phase Mennekes adapter route.

I consider all those motorized doors on the charge port and door handles a mechanic's nighmare, and would prefer to just operate them myself, as on 99.999% of the rest of cars ever made.

· · 4 years ago

We've put down a deposit to buy one of these in San Jose, CA. The range, performance, feature set and cool styling got us off the sidelines combined with the low lease price. We've been determined to plug in our next car.
Question 1: I see they have an optional home charger. I view the level 2 home charger as a must. Does anyone know the the specs of the one they are offering? I'll be deciding if I will buy theirs for roughly $2000 installed, or or buy one for $600 to $900 and have a qualified electrician install it. Is there anything special about theirs I should be aware of. Is it important for example to make it 30amp?
Question 2: Given the low supply and strong reviews, I wonder if the dealer will actually pass the lease price on, or if it will get padded? Am I likely to actually see a $199 lease deal or will it get marked up. That would be very disappointing.

· · 4 years ago

@Josepherous

Supposedly the 500e has a 6.6 kw charger that can draw up to 30 amps at 220 volts.. If you like the high speed of this then buy a 30 amp charger... If you could care less how fast it charges then just use the level 1 (120 volt) charger cord included with the car. An intermediate position would be to buy a 16 amp charger. Clipper Creek was haveing their 240 volt 20 amp LCS-25 on sale for $600 for a while. That would also be an intermediate point.

In the states, use #12 AWG for a 16 amp charger, #10 for a 17-24 amp , #8 for 25-32, and #6 for 40 amp charger docks. This assumes copper. Your electrician may want to use aluminum so just decrease the numbers by 2. High temperature wire usually may be used (75 deg centigrade) in the larger sizes so that he might use smaller wires. The fuse or ckt breaker from the supply box should be at least 125 % of the charging current. Most, but not all EVSE's do not need a neutral (white) wire. If so, you can use 12/2 w/g, 10/2, 8/2, 6/2, etc. Hope this helps.

· · 4 years ago

These things are super popular in San Francisco. I can't wait to see more of them electric. Sadly, I don't need a motor vehicle to move just people. When I need a car, I need it to move people and lots of STUFF. Model S is too big. LEAF (and on down) too small. I'm awaiting Goldilox. :-) Fortunately, I've got my 12-year-old EV still humming along in the meantime... the one that still has better range than this car!

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