The pure-electric Fiat 500e may boast a high equivalent fuel economy, but is its 75-mile cruising range enough?
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 Model S 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Model||2013 Fiat 500e|
|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|