It happens nearly every day, and as often as not, I'm the guilty party: someone slips an eBay Motors or Craigslist link into the fetid automotive stew that is the Autoblog editors' online chatroom. Typically, it's enough to momentarily derail an otherwise productive dialog about editing a breaking news item or researching an arcane bit of automotive history. Predictably, we've all got our favorites. Once dubbed "Mr. Other Makes" by a former coworker and friend who noticed my penchant for four-wheeled eBay esoterica, I can't help but spend at least a few minutes trawling the online classifieds every night before I go to bed, staring glassy-eyed at some basketcase Bitter SC, Inca-wheeled Saab 99 Turbo, a moonshot Plymouth Road Runner Superbird or resuming my quest to seek out the world's last remaining unmolested first-gen Nissan Sentra SE-R.
Every Autoblog staffer has their peccadilloes, Editor-in-Chief John Neff among them. His classified quests skew toward larger sport sedans that discreetly package big performance. As the former owner of a first-gen Ford Taurus SHO Plus, Neff is a serial viewer of Pontiac G8, Audi S6, Lincoln LS V8 and BMW M5 listings. Yet the current apple of his eye is the 500E. No, not the bubbly electric Fiat shown here that shares its name, but rather the imposing 1991-1994 Mercedes-Benz E-Class, a hand-built V8 monster developed and assembled with Porsche acting as Daimler's skunkworks. A rare car, its values are starting to escalate, a reality that has Neff closer than ever to pulling the trigger.
This 2013 Fiat 500e is actually something of a skunkworks project, too. Unable or unwilling to commit the man hours of its own engineers and equipment to a project that it knew was doomed to be a money loser, like Mercedes, Fiat farmed out much of the model's development process to a German performance specialist, Bosch. The supplier developed the battery, motor and power electronics for the 500e, although Fiat is quick to assert it still had to connect all the disparate divisions of the tier-one company to bring the project together. That sort of development could have yielded a patchwork final product, an embarrassing cut-and-shut Frankensteined version of the standard Cinquecento. Yet word is that the 500e is actually superior to its gas-powered cousins. So which is it? I decided to spend a week with one to find out.
I've never really had any complaints about the 500's cheeky looks – Fiat well and truly nailed updating and upsizing the classic Cinquecento's approachability and good humor, from its round headlights and chrome whisker grille to its tidy overhangs, be it in base Pop form or racier Abarth trim. The 500e doesn't do anything to stop the fun, fitting model-specific front and rear fascias with a whimsical dot-matrix gradient, a pattern carried through the rocker panels aft of the doors and onto the 'engine' cover. Predictably, some enhancements have been made to realize better aerodynamics, including a hardly noticeable matte black smile up front, a rear wing that looks similar to that of the Abarth, albeit with a slight downturn, and a set of 15-inch flush-face alloys. These subtle touches drop the coefficient of drag down to 0.31 – a 13-percent improvement – enough to eke out a further five miles of driving range, says Fiat. They're also enough to visually set the 500e apart from its petroleum-slurping stablemates, particularly when ordered with the $495 eSport package shown here, an option group that includes matte black alloys with orange accents echoed on the mirror caps and black-trimmed lights. The only missing trick is perhaps a set of model-specific taillamps to make the car stand out at night.
Fiat well and truly nailed updating and upsizing the classic Cinquecento.
The most important part of the 500's transformation to electron power takes place under the skin, where Fiat's 1.4-liter MultiAir four-cylinder has been binned in favor of an 83-kilowatt electric motor offering 111 horsepower and 147 pound-feet of torque. Fed by a 24-kilowatt-hour, 97-cell lithium-ion battery stack mounted under the floor, the electric motor actually boasts 10 more horsepower than the MultiAir (101) and a whopping 49 more pound-feet than the gas car, which makes do with just 98 lb-ft.
Just as important is how that thrust comes on, because the electric power delivery is nothing short of a transformative agent in this Fiat. Not only is there a lot more torque, it's all right there for the taking at 0 rpm – you don't have to buzz up to 4,000 rpm as in the standard 500 to reach peak twist. This translates into seriously brisk off-the-line performance, perfect for the stoplight-to-stoplight cut-and-thrust of city traffic. Torque steer can be a factor off the line, and it's easy to chirp the 185/55-series Firestone Firehawk GTA rubber if you give the front skinnies the beans, but it's all in good fun and not disconcerting in the least. With 0-60 happening in about nine seconds, that time places the 500e neatly in between the standard 500 and the 500 Turbo. The 500e certainly isn't hot hatch quick, but it somehow manages to feel it thanks to the way in which it effortlessly bursts out of the blocks to make you feel like a (momentary) hero. And outside of the prominent motorboat gurgle of the Abarth, the 1.4 MultiAir doesn't provide a particularly mellifluous soundtrack, so the near-silent whoosh of the 500e may actually be preferable.
Electric power delivery is nothing short of a transformative agent in this Fiat.
It's that same relative quiet that pays big dividends on the open freeway, where the 500e just plain feels less taxed and skittish than other 500 models. You don't have the constant four-cylinder din, and since the 500e uses a single-speed transmission, you don't have to stir Fiat's rather uncultivated five-speed manual or endure the acceleration-sapping misery that is the Cinquecento's six-speed automatic. Fiat has also added additional seals and insulators to various parts of the car to improve noise, vibration and harshness, including mastic patches on the floor and acoustic padding on the rear floor behind the rear seats and in the wheel well liners, plus acoustic windshield glass and improved door seals. They'd do well to include these sorts of improvements across the whole family.
Yet it's not just about noise levels – the 500e actually feels more composed at high speeds. Yes, part of that is the sound level differential, but it's also the additional weight from the electric drivetrain mounted down low settling the ride. There are moments when the standard 500 can feel nervous and bouncy on broken pavement at freeway speeds, but the 500e is more willing to soak up such imperfections. It's not a luxury car experience by any means, but given the car's tiny 90.6-inch wheelbase and relatively low-profile tires, it's about as good as one can hope for. And the 500e doesn't strain to reach its top speed, it just zips up there and is happy to sit at the edge of its envelope until the batteries run down. That top speed is supposed to be all of 85 mph, but this Nero Black tester saw a consistent Doctor Emmett Brown-Approved 88 mph on the speedo, a number confirmed by a portable GPS unit.
This tester saw a consistent Doctor Emmett Brown-Approved 88 mph on the speedo.
That extra weight ought to hurt the 500e in hot corners more than it does, as it nets out at a massive 617 pounds more than a 500 Pop automatic, tipping the scales at 2,980 pounds versus 2,363. Understeer is still predictably dominant, but overall, the 500e feels friskier than that weight penalty would suggest, partially due to its superior balance, which sits at 57-percent front and 43-percent rear instead of the Pop's nose-heavy 64/36 arrangement.
The larger front brakes (11-inch discs vs. 10.1) help haul the car down from speed reliably and smoothly, with the variable regenerative braking not impeding greatly upon feel or modulation. Speaking of regen, Fiat is justifiably proud of the 500e's unique "blended braking," designed to mimic the feeling of a gas car's deceleration by using 100-percent of its regen capability down to 8 mph. Even so, the 500e lacks a heavy regen mode like its rivals (the sort that encourages one-pedal driving, wherein the car slows precipitously when you take your foot off the accelerator), and having it as a driver-selectable option might not be a bad thing, as it can be fun and efficient way to conduct city driving.
Overall, the 500e feels friskier than the weight penalty would suggest.
The e-Cinque by and large maintains the same retro-steeped, hard-plastic cabin as its fratello, complete with the dining-chair-height seat position and arms-way-out posture necessitated by the lack of a telescoping steering column. Even so, there are a couple of important distinctions: the most obvious change is that the 500's analog gauge-within-a-gauge binnacle has been tossed in favor of a round screen. The crisp and bright display keeps tabs on everything from vehicle speed to the battery's state of charge and predicted range in miles. You can also cycle through the trip computers, charging parameters or gauge how efficient your driving is thanks to a floating blob of light that visually interprets how much you're asking of the powertrain. It's a high-quality piece, and the way the information is arranged is arguably more useful than the standard 500, whose gauge cluster can look a bit too busy. It's actually a shame the audio system can't augment its tiny head unit display by showing station and track information on the big new screen.
The interior's other main change is the absence of a traditional manual or automatic gearshift lever on the raised circular plinth between the seats. In its place are four buttons – P, R, N, D – along with the same center-mounted power window switches as every other 500. Given that this section of the dashboard is a major intrusion on knee room (particularly for the passenger), I wish Fiat would have gone to the extra expense of developing a better, more flush solution, as the space carved out by the protrusion is no longer necessary to accommodate a shift linkage, but the cost was likely prohibitive. Other minor quibbles include a much more limited color palette inside and out than the brand's famously broad range of choices, and – this is really nitpicking now – a conventional switchblade ignition key that seems oddly yestertech for an electric car.
Of course, the biggest limitation to the 500e's appeal is the same blind spot that applies to the other electric cars it competes with: range. Fiat claims an entirely believable 116 MPGe combined and an 87-mile envelope, which is actually a bit better than rivals like the Honda Fit EV (82) and Nissan Leaf (75). But if your drive includes a lot of freeway travel, prepare to see a sizable drop off – on an all-highway trip at speeds in keeping with suburban Detroit traffic (read: comfortably above 70 mph), I saw more like 65 miles of range in ideal weather. Given the right conditions in city driving and something short of a lead foot, though, the range seems doable, and frankly, enough for most people's daily commutes.
Fiat claims an entirely believable 116 MPGe combined and an 87-mile envelope.
When it comes time to charge the depleted battery pack, you're going to want to have a Level 2 (240 volt) charger installed in your garage. Do so, and you'll have a sub-four-hour charge time. Leave it up to a standard 120-volt household outlet like you'd charge your cell phone, and you're staring at the wrong end of 24 hours.
As with all EVs today, when it comes to the issue of price, it's not as simple as a single figure, what with all of the federal and state tax breaks and sweetheart lease deals designed to get the ball rolling on America's reluctant electric revolution. MSRP on the 2013 500e starts at $31,800 plus an $800 destination fee, but Fiat says that total can plummet to as low as $17,800 if you're able to suffer through the local, state and federal paperwork and qualify for all programs and incentives.
MSRP on the 500e starts at $31,800, but Fiat says that total can plummet to as low as $17,800.
If you're willing to suck up the cost of getting a charger installed, the best route is very likely leasing, provided you can find a cooperative dealer willing to make good on Fiat's exceptional lease program of $199 a month for 36 months with only $999 down. This, unfortunately, appears to be a problem, as many would-be purchasers have been telling Autoblog that their local franchise won't honor the deal – apparently Fiat is offering dealers $1,500 for each 500 they sell, and the $199 rate is contingent upon dealers passing that money along to the buyer, something they are reluctant to do because the model is in demand and in short supply.
Short supply, so Fiat must have a big hit on its hands, right? Well, sort of. The car is only available in California as a way to satisfy the Golden State's zero-emissions sales mandate, and Fiat probably isn't terribly keen to make more than is required by the letter of the law, as it expects to lose $10,000 on each example it builds. If you want to own a Fiat 500e outside of California, you're probably going to have to get pretty creative to make your dream a reality.
Fiat must have a big hit on its hands, right? Well, sort of.
It might be worth the effort, though. The Fiat 500e is not only a genuine hoot to drive, it's effectively the only electric conversion on the market that's clearly and comprehensively better to drive than the internal combustion machine from which it spawned. While the googly eyed Italian juice box seen in these photos has little in common with the Wolf In Sheep's Clothing Mercedes 500E beyond its name and four wheels, after spending a week in one, I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the staff of Autoblog 2033 is seeing its productivity crimped by at least one staffer trolling the classified ads in search of a good example.