Single Speed Automatic
by Roger Biermann
The Fiat 500 was originally an innovative city car – one of the original compacts that defined not just a segment, but an era of motoring in Europe. Compact and nimble, it was the perfect car for the small towns and narrow alleys that littered Europe. 60 years later and the Fiat 500 is once again trying to lead the charge in innovation for city cars. This time, it's doing it electrically, with the Fiat 500e – the smallest of the electric car brigade, and arriving in just one trim level and one body style.
Just like the non-electric Fiat 500, the 500e's interior is tiny. Though it boasts 4 seats, the rear bench is hardly usable – even children will get fed up on anything longer than brief trips to the shops. The floor-mounted battery pack impedes rear leg room, and particularly trunk volume, dropping it from 10 cubic feet in the regular 500 to just 7 cu ft here. The front seating remains the same, not particularly spacious, but suitable for smaller adults.
Updates last year revised the interior mildly, but the interior quality still feels cheap. The plastics are hard, and despite their funky colors, the design now feels old. The big update came in the form of Uconnect 5.0 – an infotainment system with a 5.0-inch touch screen and Smartphone connectivity options – not including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The system operates decently, though not as efficiently as Chevrolet's MyLink.
The 500e, with its short wheelbase and limited wheel travel produces a very choppy and unstable ride. Even small bumps produce a bucking sensation due to the short wheelbase, and large bumps send the 500e heaving about. Grip levels are also a little limited due to this, and the 500e can find itself skipping over broken tarmac. But in spite of this, the 500e is actually a hoot to drive.
With the additional weight low down, there's stability on offer when cornering, and the steering – though numb on center – feels great off it and offers keen responses. Though other EVs may be more practical and better cars, the 500e is the most enjoyable one to actually drive in a spirited manner. The brakes leave something to be desired though, they aren't as sharp as they could be, and they lack regenerative functionality.
The 500e's 24kWh lithium-ion battery pack powers a 111 horsepower electric motor with 147 lb-ft of torque. Drive goes to the front wheels through a single speed transmission. The instant torque means the sprightly 500e gets from 0-60mph in just more than 8 seconds. On a full charge, the EPA estimates an 84-mile range – good for the segment, but nothing like the Chevy Bolt's 238 mile range. On a 240-volt power supply, a full charge takes about 4 hours, though a household 120V supply will take nearly 24 hours.
With only one trim level available on the 500e, options are few and standard kit is decent. Standard equipment includes navigation, climate control, heated front seats and reverse parking sensors. A sunroof is optional, as is an eSport package that adds black and orange 15-inch wheels and orange exterior accents.
In terms of safety, there's an audible pedestrian warning system, 7 airbags, and stability control. The 500e hasn't been crash tested, but the regular 500 scores 4/5 stars from the NHTSA and Good ratings from the IIHS in all tests except the small front overlap test where it received the lowest rating of Poor.
In 2014, Sergio Marchionne (FCA's CEO) famously said, "I hope you don't buy the 500e, because every time I sell one it costs me $14 000." Take his advice; the 500e is costly, and not anywhere as good as the Chevrolet Bolt.