Single Speed Automatic
by Gabe Beita Kiser
At job interviews, an employer will usually ask the applicant why they want the job in order to gauge how well the employee will do. Important work like firefighting or engineering buildings that won't collapse are a huge commitment and it's paramount to have someone who deeply cares about what they are doing and will go the extra mile to do it well. An employee who is wary about their work will be lazy, and the same goes for automakers that unwillingly make cars that the government tells them to make.
That's why when I was told that the all-electric Fiat 500e was coming my way for a weeklong test, I was only marginally excited. The tiny EV is the result of California's Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate, which many automakers reluctantly adhere to simply because losing California's sales would be disastrous. FCA loses money on each 500e that is sold, so it wasn't too happy when it was forced to build the EV. Vehicles that come out of this forced use of regulatory powers are usually terrible because there is little to no incentive to shell out major engineering dollars and make them good. Just look to the 2000s era Chevrolet Aveo or Cobalt if you need a reminder.
With this high praise in mind, I took on the responsibility of a Retro Light Blue Fiat 500e one morning and tried to see if I could have something good to say about it a week later. The paint color itself was an interesting choice, but it was the $495 eSport package that really made the car pop. Ticking off that box means that the body-color mirrors get painted a contrasting shade of orange to match an orange stripe along the side of the car. Black 15-inch wheels with an orange accent replace the standard 15-inch aluminum rims, and the headlights gain a black trim as well. Combined, they make the car seem like more of a toy and made plenty of people do double takes with smiles of irony when they saw me in the bright Fiat blasting gangster rap.
Aside from the eSport package, the car was Spartan save for a tiny 5-inch display screen with FCA's competent Uconnect infotainment system. A single speed transmission got its instructions from a push-button shifter, kind of like the one in an Aston Martin. Unlike a Tesla Model S, the 500e tries to keep the ignition ritual familiar with a regular turn key ignition. After that, the similarities end. Pushing drive and taking off on EV specific tires incites a muted whirr of the single 83 kW electric motor producing its 111 horsepower and 147 lb-ft of torque to make you forget about the 525-pound weight gain over the standard 500. Mated to a 24 kWhr liquid heated and cooled lithium ion battery, a claimed 84 miles of adventuring in the city was possible.
I say city because there is no way on Earth that you'd want to take this car much further. With a tiny wheelbase of 90.6-inches and the same 60-inch height of a Mercedes GLA, the Fiat is prone to leaning even with the low center of gravity that the batteries promote. Potholes suddenly turn into legitimate threats and bumps have the ability to unsettle the car more than I was comfortable with. By sticking to the dense city pavement in which it evolved for, the 500e began to shine. Put simply, this car is revolutionary for a dense and traffic infested city. With all 147 lb-ft of torque available whenever my right foot desired, passing cars became a pastime. With a 0-60 mph time of 8.4-seconds, the 500e isn't exactly a race car.
However, its 30-50 mph time of 3.5 seconds is blisteringly quick, 3.2-seconds quicker than a manual BMW M4 to be exact. This means that as soon as you see a gap in an adjacent lane, a stab of the throttle and a jerk of the wheel is all it takes to conquer that territory. Braking is fairly good in part because the regenerative braking system only slows the car minimally. Unfortunately there is some play in the pedal before the calipers make a hard bite, sending yours truly lurching forwards in low-speed traffic. The car's cute and small dimensions ensure that there is plenty of room for error and even gaps that usually benefit only cyclists become an option, which is a relief when cars are kissing bumpers in traffic.
Thing is, having the same privileges as a cyclist means similar responsibilities. For one, storage capacity is limited to a handful of groceries, and owners can be sure that they'll never be elected as designated driver with the cramped back seats. Cyclists will be familiar with the range because the advertised 84 mile range quickly drops. Turning on the air conditioner immediately cuts the predicted range by 10 miles and on one occasion, I made it back home with only 5 miles of range left. In a modern car, it isn't fun to consider turning up the volume on the music a luxury. Speaking of luxuries, the 500e has none. Unlike many newer cars, there is no backup camera or parking sensors, which is fine on a small car with good visibility.
In fact, aside from the navigation system and heated front seats, the Fiat 500e had about as much toys as a 1995 Honda Accord. It would be fine if this was a bargain-basement car, but with a swollen $33,290 sticker price on my example, this wasn't the case. With California rebates (the car is only available in California and Oregon) and other credits, you can buy one today for $20,500, which is closer to what the car is actually worth. If you live in a place where your life is predictable and revolves around a dense city center with too much traffic, then the Fiat 500e is a practical car that will relieve you of the burden of the internal combustion engine. However if polar bears aren't a concern and spontaneity is expected, get a larger car that drinks dead dinosaurs.