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.

New to EVs? Start here

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