America's electric vehicle segment is getting crowded, but sales remain tiny compared to the overall market. Listening to EV pitchmen, a key phrase heard over and over is "no compromises." This particular EV, the seller says, offers all* the things you want in a car, without the gasoline and without compromises. That asterisk thing? Well, sure, the electric vehicle paradigm requires you rethink the "one car that does everything" mentality, but once that's out of the way, there are no compromises here. No siree.
Of course, all EVs require compromises – but the truth is that every car forces owners to make compromises. Big SUVs don't always fit into parking spaces and suck down fuel. Subcompacts can't hold a gaggle of children and dogs. High-performance sports cars compromise wallets. Once you wrap your head around the idea that choosing electric is an option just like vehicle size or color – where no one choice is right for everybody, even if it's perfect for some – the 2014 Fiat 500e, going on sale this summer, asks a simple question: when you're driving in a city, why would you drive anything except an EV?
Fiat has been making the 500e at its Toluca, Mexico plant since early December, but it isn't busy building a million so that just anyone can own one. In fact, the automaker is going out of its way to make sure you don't buy a 500e if it's not right for you. The official website will soon have a "compatibility matching service" that will use information you feed it to determine if you're an EV candidate (we're guessing a short commute, an understanding of new technology and a place to charge at home will be the key factors). If the system doesn't think you're EV-ready, it'll propose a different 500 for you. Nice, huh?
So, does the 500e actually offer pure electric mobility without compromises? Yes and no. Mostly yes, and it's a fun yes.
The key to the 500e, as we see it, is its surprisingly reasonable cost. The $32,500 MSRP (before incentives) isn't wildly different from other EVs available, even if government money and Fiat rebate incentives will push that down to a more palatable $20,500. The headline number, though, is the $199-a-month lease. That's for 36 months and with $999 down. If you've been shopping for a 500 recently, you might recognize those numbers as the same as if you were going after a gas-powered 500 Pop. In other words, Fiat has made going electric cost exactly zero extra dollars if you were already interested in another 500. Factor in High Occupancy Vehicle lane access and money saved at the gas station (actual money, not some fantasy $100/hour wage rate, Tesla), and the 500e looks like a tremendous deal for the right California commuters. Want proof? Let's put $199 a month into context with other all-electric vehicles available today.
Fiat has made going electric cost exactly zero extra dollars if you were already interested in the 500.
The current bestselling EV is that Nissan Leaf (MSRP: $28,800), which once leased for $349 a month, a long time ago. We've since seen leases go for way lower – $139, for a limited time – but the standard lease price today is $199 a month for 36 months with an initial payment of $1,999. So, on the whole, a thousand bucks more than the 500e and you get a real back seat and more cargo capacity. From there, things climb steadily.
The Mitsubishi i (MSRP: $29,125) was, for a short while, the low-cost EV star with a $69-month lease (less than some cell phone plans, which is kind of mind-warping to think about), but the normal rate is $221 a month for 36 months, with a whopping $3,445 due at signing. Another way of thinking of that total is that it's more than the first year of 500e lease payments, including the money due up front, $3,387). The Honda Fit EV (MSRP: $37,415) offers three-year leases for $389 a month with $389 due up front while the Ford Focus Electric (MSRP: $39,200), which bigger and so not exactly a direct competitor, runs $284 a month for 36 months with $929 due at signing. Daimler has not yet announced lease prices for the next-gen Smart Fortwo ED, but the previous generation leased for $599 a month. We don't know the exact MSRP for the Spark EV, but Chevrolet has promised it will cost "under $25,000 with tax incentives," which implies it'll be roughly the same as the Fiat. We're guessing Chevy is redoing its own lease option calculations in light of the 500e. (All these lease numbers come from the various manufacturer websites, with the classic 90210 zip code put in when required to get a quote. Local offers may vary.)
The takeaway point is that, if you're leasing, the cheapest all-electric option today is the Fiat 500e, and you can even roll the cost of an at-home charge unit into the lease, which is done through Chrysler's Mopar division. All these low prices might explain how Fiat is probably going to lose about $10,000 on each 500e it sells – to say nothing of the free gas-vehicle rentals Fiat is throwing in with the 500e Pass.
If you're not in California, then the Fiat's low price doesn't really mean squat.
Of course, price is just one thing, and there are all sorts of differences that come into play here – vehicle style, mileage limits, the availability of quick-charging – and if you're not in California, then the Fiat's low price doesn't really mean squat. Fiat has built DC fast charging capability into the battery packs, but there is no way to connect the car to a DC station. Fiat is waiting until the SAE Combo Charging infrastructure becomes more prevalent before possibly adding that option. For now, a standard J1772 connector and 6.6 kW charger let you refill the pack in under four hours.
Speaking of filling up, no electric vehicle discussion is complete without a look at range. In fact, that's where many people start and stop. Range is important, and for the 500e, the official numbers are a combined miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) of 116, with 122 MPGe in the city and 108 MPGe on the highway. Packing a big 24-kWh liquid-cooled and heated lithium-ion battery in the floorboard that doesn't encroach into the cabin, the 500e's official number is a segment-leading 87 miles. Our half-day experience in Los Angeles traffic and the swirly hills of Malibu convinced us that 100 miles is an entirely reasonable number. We drove 48.4 miles and used exactly 48 percent of our battery's state of charge. Your mileage will vary, of course, but this was our experience with the A/C on and not being terribly aggressive with the go pedal, the way we expect most people will. Unfortunately, we don't know our MPGe because we discovered a bug in the car's software, a bug that representatives promised will be fixed by the time the car goes on sale – or even by the time you read this, since Fiat is still tweaking the OS and flashing the cars to the latest version is apparently an easy task.
The 500e's official range is a segment-leading 87 miles.
For comparison's sake, here are the official EPA numbers for other small electric vehicles (combined/city/highway):
- 2013 Smart ED: 107/122/93 MPGe, 68-mile range
- 2013 Ford Focus Electric: 105/110/99, 76-mile range
- 2013 Honda Fit EV: 118/132/105 MPGe, 82-mile range
- 2013 Mitsubishi i: 112/126/99 MPGe, 62-mile range
- 2013 Nissan Leaf: 116/130/102, 75-mile range (but see this)
All of these numbers don't mean a darn thing if you don't like the way a car looks or drives. Thankfully, the 500e is a blast, and we actually like it better than its liquid-fueled 500 cousin, which has a ropey manual gearbox and lackluster power. In fact, unless you're a sucker for the exhaust noise, as some are, the 500 Abarth Cabrio that Fiat offered us right after the 500e drive actually felt slightly inferior at times. Right off the bat, you'd be forgiven if you thought the EV handles better than the gas-powered 500. They're both tall and narrow, but the heavy battery pack placed low in the 500e means the EV is more surefooted. We didn't think the Abarth was going to roll off the road at any point, but the 500e just felt more planted. We suspect the specially engineered suspension and new lower-body structure, which gives the EV a 10-percent improvement in bending stiffness, help the electric compete with the Abarth and its racing heritage. The more equal front-to-rear weight balance – 57/43 instead of 64/36 in the standard 500 – helps, too.
Zipping from 0-40, we easily preferred the electric to the gas engine.
The 500e does not lack for power thanks to a 83-kW (111 horsepower) electric motor. Zipping from 0-40, we easily preferred the electric to the gas engine. The EV may only have one gear in the tranmission – engaged with an old-school push-button selector – but it goes down the road with confidence. A bit of trouble is felt when you accelerate from around 30 mph to highway speeds felt a bit lackluster – 0-60 is a bit over 9 seconds, around the same as the standard 500. We can certainly understand that some people will prefer the Abarth's soundtrack, but there's something to be said for motoring away in electric silence, too. If nothing else, it leaves more dino juice to burn (and we'll stay away from the fact that the Abarth has a 130-mph top speed while the EV can only get you 85 mph. Still, for on-road performance, 85 is enough for honest folk.
When you're driving around the city in the 500e, you quickly forget you're not driving in a normal car. We would have liked some way to adjust the regenerative braking level, but that's not something Fiat thinks most drivers will be interested in. Instead, the engineers have made an EV for average drivers. The car creeps the way drivers expect normal torque-converter automatic cars to do, for example, and if you come to a stop on an uphill, if you don't put your foot on the brake, you will roll backward. Just like old times.
Hitting 80 mph on the highway in the EV was easy, quiet and smooth, but damn if it didn't suck range quicker than we were comfortable with. Well, theoretical range anyway, since the dashboard tries to give you a range estimate based on how you're driving, complete with a up or down arrow telling you if you're on track to increase or decrease that number if you keep doing what you're doing. Our six miles of highway driving quickly wiped out 20 miles of range, but we gained most of that back on the display in slower city driving soon thereafter. Combine the fun of the 500e with an EPA-estimated annual energy cost of just $500 on top of the $199 monthly lease payments, and the package begins to look awfully tempting.
The engineers have made an EV for average drivers.
The problem, of course, is that no one outside of California will be able to experience the 500e, unless they pull some strings. We were told the brand is interested in selling the model outside of California – Europe, Asia, other parts of North America – but for at least the first year, it will be limited to the Golden State.
There are more areas where the 500e exceeds its petroleum-loving family members. These are the most attractive stock wheels we can remember on an EV, and the 15-inchers also help with the car's aerodynamics. The bright orange color is an EV-exclusive, but we thought the dark gray (Fiat calls it Nero) with the e-Sport package looked the best. All 500e models have a reworked front fascia that has been sealed and otherwise modified to optimize airflow, resulting in a drag coefficient of 0.311, a 13-percent improvement over the 2013 500 Lounge. The bottom part of the nose has what Fiat calls a dot-matrix pattern that was inspired by Italian furniture and print designs from the 1960s. We'll take it if it boosts efficiency, but it does look a lot like a golf ball somewhere is missing its dimples.
The bright orange is an EV-exclusive, but we thought it looked best in dark gray.
The 500e comes in two main interior color schemes, Steam (a gray-white) or Nero (dark gray) that can be accented in various ways. The leatherette seats continue the dot-matrix style but, more importantly, they are comfortable enough whether zipping across town or stopped dead in traffic. No 500 – with any powertrain – is a true road trip car, so any hindquarter discomfort was secondary to the main focus of our few hours with the car: enjoying the drive.
Despite the fun, we certainly didn't enjoy everything the 500e packs into a tiny space. The 500e is fitted with the same cheesy aftermarket TomTom nav system found on other Cinquecentos. Despite the integrated EV options – charge station map, ability to send route information from your smartphone and energy management gauges – the unit sticks up so far that it really just gets in the way of actually seeing outside the car (a problem in other areas, too). Thankfully, you can remove it and shove it in the glove box when you don't need it (which we expect will be pretty much always).
There are two other screens of note. The large central information readout offers a bunch of information at once, from speed to battery state-of-charge to whether you're driving in "power," "eco" or "charge" mode. These aren't modes in the sense that you can push a button to select them – the 500e doesn't play that game – they're just lights that reflect the way you're driving. Other plug-in cars have leaves and floating balls, the 500e has colored bars.
Other plug-in cars have leaves and floating balls, the 500e has colored bars.
Then there's the in-dash audio system, which offers satellite radio and USB connections, but takes the dot matrix design motif back a few decades. Why the 500 – especially the high-tech 500e – can't get an actual touchscreen infotainment system is a mystery.
A bigger mystery is why Fiat decided against giving the driver any driver's side visibility whatsoever. We nearly panicked the first time we turned our head to switch lanes and found nothing but a B-pillar thick enough to block anything but X-ray vision. As anyone who's been in a Honda Fit knows, a small car doesn't have to have limited visibility, which makes Fiat's lackluster solution – adding a spherical blind spot extension to the driver-side mirror – kind of sad. It's far less than ideal, but we did get used to it. The A-pillars are also too thick, impeding forward visibility.
Our problems with the 500e are really problems with the 500 in general.
We remain unhappy with the central window controls and the lack of a passenger armrest but, again, these are knocks against the 500 line as a whole, and have nothing to do with the drivetrain. And that's the key point here. Our problems with the 500e are really problems with the 500 in general. Within its range, this electric model actually outpoints its gas-powered sibling for refinement and low-end power. For some, the benefits of electric power will be outweighed by the fears of what the car can't do (drive from LA to Las Vegas without some major hassles, for example). That's just the way it is in EV land today. The fact that Fiat is offering – in admittedly limited numbers and in one state for the moment – an EV that plays well in traffic, doesn't cost a dime more than its gas-powered brethren and has real character is something worth celebrating.