Editors' note, June 13, 2013:
We've updated our review to include the EPA estimated range alongside our observed values and adjusted our evaluation of the pricing to compensate for available incentives.
It's the end of my first day behind the wheel of the 2013 Fiat 500e and the little Italian hatchback is parked curbside in front of my San Francisco apartment. Chirping the alarm as I walk away, I can't help but marvel at how ordinary the electric car looks. Unless you note the missing tailpipe, there's not much to distinguish the 500e from the other Fiat 500, this one gasoline-powered, parked at the end of the block.
This, in my opinion, is a very good thing. Not everyone wants to be caught behind the wheel of a car that looks like a low-flying saucer.
Eagle-eyed automotive enthusiasts will spot the unique front and rear bumpers, the "5ooe" badging, and -- if they peer into the window -- the lack of a shift knob, but our Grigio silver example lacked even the white bumper insets and bright Arancio Elettrico orange paint that appears in most of the electric Fiat's publicity shots. In a city filled with Mini Coopers, Smart ForTwos, and of course other Fiat 500 variants, the 500e doesn't exactly turn heads like a Tesla does.
That is, until you plug it in. While charging using a curbside charger the very next day, I was surprised by how many people slowed to take a second look, gawked at the connection to the charger, or stopped me to ask questions about the little 'lectric. Oh, what a difference one cable can make.
Electric power train
Like the gasoline-powered variants, the 2013 Fiat 500e is front-wheel drive, but that's where the power train similarities end.
A 24-kWh lithium ion battery pack sits where the gas tank would normally be, charging from empty to full in about 24 hours on 110v standard outlet power with its included charging cable or just under 4 hours on 240V power from a level 2 charging station.
Turn the key and select D for drive from the 500e's push-button shifter selection and that stored power will flow to an electric motor under the hood that twists its driveshaft to the tune of 111 horsepower and 147 pound-feet of torque. As with many electric motors, the 500e's full torque is available from 0rpm, so the hatchback delivers great low and midrange torque, perfect and zippy for city speeds of about 45 mph or lower.
Passengers noted how odd the nearly silent drivetrain felt and the lack of shift points to help them guess how quickly we were going. More than one commented on the 500's tall seating position.
Meanwhile, I was enjoying the effortless torque and the smooth CVT-like acceleration, without the CVT-like rubber band feeling. What's more, the 500e handles like the standard 500 does: steering is responsive enough without being twitchy, the short wheelbase makes the vehicle feel alive, and the soft suspension soaks up the potholes and bumps that plague San Francisco's city streets. Body roll and understeer keep the 500e from feeling like a go-kart, but it's no sports car anyway.
However, the torquey 500e may be quick, but it's not fast. Let me explain: Try a 0-to-60 mph run and you'll find that the single-speed gearbox's ratio is best suited for lower speeds and the engine runs out of steam near the top end. Not so much that the 500e feels weak or inadequate at highway speeds -- it'll hum along as happily at 70 mph as it will at 30 -- but enough so that the 0-to-60 times are less than impressive.
Electric cars are usually tech powerhouses -- just look at the with its 17-inch touch screen -- but most of the Fiat 500e's dashboard wouldn't look out of place in a car built around the turn of the century. There's a simple-looking radio with a single-line display, basic climate controls, and a TomTom portable GPS sticking out of the dashboard.
Like the 500e itself, however, the dashboard has more underneath its unassuming skin. For starters, that simple radio is powered by Fiat's Blue&Me infotainment technology -- a sort of Ford Sync analog that gives drivers voice command for hands-free calling on a Bluetooth-paired smartphone and music selection on a USB-connected iPod or mass storage device. I wasn't able to get the system to stream audio over Bluetooth, which -- to me as an Android phone user -- was disappointing.
The 500e's instrument cluster is a full-digital deal with readouts for battery charge, current speed, estimated range, and menus that give the driver control over a host of vehicle systems and battery-charging options.
The TomTom navigation system is fairly underwhelming. It's a middle-of-the-range TomTom unit with a 5-inch screen, an interface that any smartphone-toting driver will probably want to avoid, and so-so performance. It mounts on the dashboard via a removable cradle that also charges the device.
The TomTom does, however, have a few cool tricks that make it feel just a bit less tacked on. The navigator can communicate with the 500e's Blue&Me system via Bluetooth to give drivers access to browse USB-connected audio sources and view real-time economy, efficiency, and power usage data.
Specs on Fiat's Web site state that a ParkView rear camera is available, but our tester was only equipped with a rear proximity sensor, not that the diminutive 500e needs more than that.