Fiat 500e, the best EV conversion yet?

Fiat 500e
Fiat 500e
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We began our Fiat 500e Los Angeles press-launch drive with 95 miles showing on our 500e's range gauge – interesting, since the car's EPA-rated range is 87 miles city/highway combined. Because the 500e's range-calculating algorithm looks at the last 100 miles, then the last 10 miles and the last five minutes, to account for recent change in energy usage, our 500e must have been hypermiled for some distance before we got into it to give us that starting point. Or the EPA's numbers are a bit conservative here.

"It handles like a heavy Fiat 500," observed my co-driver. "I like it."

We inserted ourselves into creepy-crawly LA morning traffic, then turned north up one of those twisty canyon roads where movie stars live. At the top, we headed west on the famous Mulholland Drive, and after a total of 11 miles, the last few uphill, we saw 47 miles of range remaining. Three miles further along curvy Mulholland, we were still showing 47 miles.

"It handles like a heavy Fiat 500," observed my co-driver from behind the wheel. "I like it." The 500e's heated and cooled 24-kWh battery pack is tightly packed under the floor to lower the car's center of gravity and minimize loss of cabin room. And we both agreed that the 500e was exceptionally quiet, even at wide-open-throttle.

Then, we turned downhill and started gaining range thanks to the regenerative brakes – 53 miles at 17 miles driven; 55 at 18.6 miles; 57 at 21.2. Then it was my turn to drive.

fiat 500e

At 28 total miles, zipping along at 70-plus mph on the CA 101 freeway, we saw 45 miles remaining. At 40.9 miles, twisting down Topanga Canyon Road toward Malibu, our range was back up to 52 miles. When we stopped for lunch on the famous Pacific Coast Hwy with 48.5 miles on the trip odometer, the range gauge said 48 miles to go.

I've driven a lot of electrics, and this very likeable 500e is one of the best.

Therefore, after nearly 50 miles of stop, go, up, down and around, including one stretch of freeway, we had burned 47 miles-worth of battery energy and had just as much remaining. Not bad at all. Kudos to the folks who planned our drive route, which ably demonstrated the 500e's smile-inducing character ... and efficiency. Major kudos also to the hard-working Chrysler engineers who made the little Fiat volt-burner – the company's first production EV – this good without outside help. I've driven a lot of electrics, and this very likeable 500e is one of the best.

As we know, Italian automaker Fiat – back in the States after a 27-year hiatus (and now owner/operator of resurgent US automaker Chrysler) – launched its US 500 minicar for 2012 and is following up with this surprisingly nice 2013 electric version. Available only in California at first, it boasts decent performance from its 111-hp electric motor and class-leading 87-mile EPA combined range, and it can be recharged in less than four hours with its Level 2 (240 volt) on-board charger – but there's no DC fast-charge availability yet.

The conventional gas 500's two endearing qualities, styling cuteness and fun-to-drive character, have been well preserved in this brilliantly-converted version. If anything, the eight aerodynamic drag-reducing changes (front fascia, front air dam, wheels, mirror caps, rear spoiler, rear fascia, underbody panels and side sills) the engineers made to its body enhance its looks while reducing its wind resistance by 13 percent, for an added three miles of range.

fiat 500e

And Chrysler marketers have done an equally impressive job of making the well-equipped 500e affordable. While its sticker is a hefty $32,500 (twice as high as the gas 500's base price), lessees who pony up $999 down can apply the federal $7,500 and California $2,500 tax credits, plus a $2,000 Fiat rebate, all up front to get their lease payment down to $199/month – the same as that base gas 500. With all those incentives, you could also buy a 500e for $20,500.

The 500e's 108 MPGe rating was touted as "unsurpassed by any electric vehicle on the US market" ... before the Chevy Spark EV's numbers announced

The 500e's 108 MPGe (gas mileage equivalent) highway rating was touted as "unsurpassed by any electric vehicle on the US market" ... before the similar-size Chevy Spark EV's EPA combined efficiency was announced as 119 MPGe (vs. the Fiat's 116 combined). And the Spark EV – also cute, and quicker at under eight seconds 0-60 vs. the 500e's nine-plus seconds – gets 82 miles of EPA range on a smaller, less expensive 21 kWh li-ion battery.

That's tough competition, and it will only get tougher. As Chrysler/Fiat folks point out, there will be some 18 electrically-powered vehicles competing for California's (ridiculously) mandated EV sales before long, so why should buyers choose theirs over all the others? That's where their engineers leave off and their marketers take over.

As of now, they say, three major barriers stand in the way of an EV ownership decision: 1) high price plus complexity of the purchase process, given all the available incentives; 2) concern over limited range, and range anxiety; and 3) today's limited charging infrastructure. So they have cleverly addressed all three, beginning with applying all available incentives up front to get the monthly lease payment down to that $199 level, or in some cases even lower.

fiat 500e

To optimize usage of the infrastructure, the 500e comes with standard (Tom Tom) navigation that shows charge stations and a circle around its location to indicate remaining range. And owners get a smartphone app (for iPhones and Androids only) that "enables real-time vehicle status, manages charging, tracks the driver's energy use, locates the vehicle and nearby charging stations, plans and sends routes ... and provides test-message alerts."

Then, when 500e owners/lessees need to drive beyond its battery range and/or carry more people and stuff than its tiny cabin can accommodate, Chrysler/Fiat has that handled with a 500e Pass program. Through an agreement with Enterprise Holdings – which owns Enterprise, Alamo and National rental car brands – they can get up to 12 days worth of credit each year for the first three years toward rentals of "alternate transportation" vehicles.

And every participating California Fiat "Studio" will have a special orange "hotline" phone that will be manned after business hours for 500e customers with questions or problems. What more can they can do to enable and ease 500e ownership? Not much.

Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne admits that his company is doing this only to comply with California's Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate, and will lose big (like $10K big) on every 500e it leases or sells. But he doesn't want to fall even one short of what it takes.

FIAT 500 Information

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