2013 Fiat 500e review:

Electric Fiat is pretty fun over short distances

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Fiat mobile app
To help drivers to manage their 500e's battery, Fiat has the Fiat Access app for smartphones.

After downloading this app from the Google Play store, I was able to remotely view the 500e's current battery life, estimated charging time, and driving range, and locate the vehicle on a map. Another tab allowed me to set up a charging schedule to delay charging the EV to benefit from cheaper off-peak rates. I could also tell the car to ignore the schedule and begin charging immediately.

I could even activate the 500e's climate control systems to preheat or cool the cabin using power from the grid before embarking on a trip. Other telematic functions, such as remote start, headlight flashing, horn honking, and door unlocking are also available from the application.

I especially appreciated the app's ability to notify me if some jerk unplugged the 500e from its charger, or if an error occurred, or even to remind me to plug the 500e in in the event that I'd forgotten.

Range without anxiety
Here's the part that you've all been waiting for: the dreaded range discussion.

According to the EPA, you'll get about 87 miles of range from the 500e's fully charged battery pack. According to a representative from Fiat, the 500e has a city range that's typically "greater than 100 miles." However, according to the 500e's trip computer whenever I got behind the wheel with a full charge, 75 miles is about all the range that I could expect to get. You may get more for some trips, you may get less on others, but let's just say that the optimal value is somewhere among these numbers.

With a range of only 75 miles, the 500e is not a car for road trips. Josh Miller/CNET

Also, according to the EPA, the EV will get a combined 116 mpge (miles per gallon equivalent), but the dashboard display was reporting as high as 128 mpge when I handed the keys over to CNET's video team at the end of my three days behind the wheel. Oddly, it reported this efficiency in spite of the fact that my lead-footed driving actually lowered the 500e's actual delivered daily range by around 10 miles. The computer adjusts the estimated and reported driving range based on the driver's habits and road conditions, which made it even harder to estimate exactly how efficient the 500e actually was. It doesn't help that measuring electricity in miles per gallon equivalent is inherently sort of confusing.

Perhaps more important than any of these numbers of varying arbitrariness is the real-world usefulness of that range.

Now, 75 miles may not sound like a lot in a world where we're used to getting 200 to 300 miles out of a tank of gas, but I was surprised by how well that range works for city living. I drove the 500e all over San Francisco, ran errands all over town, and even did some joyriding and almost never did the battery meter drop below the 50 percent mark. I always had enough range to get where I was going and then some.

Sure, you've got to plug the 500e in every night for recharging, which can be an issue in its natural urban habitat where private garages are not the norm and shared garages -- such as CNET's -- often only have 110V outlets, if at all.

With the help of a third-party smartphone app, I had no trouble finding charging stations in San Francisco. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

That said, I didn't have a hard time keeping the 500e's battery reasonably charged. A full charge may take about 24 hours on 110V or about 4 hours on a 220V level 2 charger, but you don't have to do it all in one go. I found that grabbing an hour here at the curbside charger while I had coffee, 2 hours there at a parking garage while I watched a movie, and a few hours of trickle charging at the office was enough to keep the 500e rolling almost indefinitely.

I found plenty of places to recharge around San Francisco with the aid of the ChargePoint app on my smartphone (the built-in charger search through the TomTom wasn't of much help). With ChargePoint, I was not only able to find fast chargers in my area, but I was also able to see how much it would cost to charge, any important details about accessibility, and -- perhaps most importantly -- whether or not the charger was in use. There's no worse waste of precious cruising miles than driving to a charging station only to find it occupied. More EV automakers should really look into integrating this smartphone app or something similar into their electric vehicles.

In sum
Of course, I wouldn't take the 500e on a road trip; it's not designed for that. I wouldn't go rock-crawling in a Subaru BRZ nor would I try to eat soup with a fork. Taking the plunge on a car like 500e means understanding what it can and can't do and being honest about your needs. Want an EV that you can take on a road trip? Let's talk some more about Chevrolet's Volt.

The 500e isn't without its compromises, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time behind the wheel. Josh Miller/CNET

As pure electrics go, the 500e's closest analogue is probably the Honda Fit EV. Unfortunately, I haven't driven the electric Fit (but my colleague has). I have, however, driven the Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf, which also get crammed into the category simply because they're smallish EVs. The Ford's and Nissan's EPA stated ranges fall just short of the Fiat's, but when you consider how much my mileage varied from the stated value, the difference is almost negligible. They are much larger cars and the Focus, while more expensive, also feels like a much more premium vehicle. The Leaf, on the other hand, is also is available with an onboard ChaDeMo charger that can quick-charge its battery to about 80 percent in about 30 minutes and has a lower starting price, too. Judged against the Nissan and the Ford, the 2013 Fiat 500e's $31,800 starting price seems just a hair steep, but not impossible to swallow.

However, cross-shopping electric vehicles is tricky because of all of the potential incentives, credits, rebates, and insurance breaks available. A cost estimator on Fiat's Web site claims over $14,000 of total incentives, but we typically only consider the $7,500 Federal tax credit on new plug-in electric vehicles when evaluating price. If you qualify for the whole rebate, that would knock the 500e's adjusted price down to an easier-to-digest $24,300.

But all of the EVs that the 500e competes against qualify for these same incentives, so that doesn't change the fact that for about the same money, you could also find yourself behind the wheel of the larger, more spacious, and arguably better-equipped Nissan Leaf SV. Although, when faced with the prospect of driving around in a car that looks like a Nissan Leaf, I might at least think about the stylish 500e.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Fiat 500e
Trim Preproduction
Power train 111-horsepower electric motor, single-speed transmission, front-wheel drive
EPA fuel economy 122 city, 108 highway, 116 combined mpge, 87-mile range
Observed fuel economy n/a
Navigation TomTom portable unit with Blue&Me integration
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Disc player Single-slot CD
MP3 player support Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, iPod connection
Other digital audio SiriusXM Satellite Radio
Audio system 6-speaker Alpine premium audio
Driver aids Rear proximity sensor
Base price $31,800 before incentives
Price as tested n/a

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