When new friends asked if I wanted to join them for dinner in Oakland, about 15 miles from CNET headquarters in San Francisco, I was totally game. Until I remembered what I had parked in the garage: a 2015 Fiat 500e.
The little Fiat has a range of 87 miles per charge. After a quick math check I realized I could easily make it to Oakland, home, and back to CNET the next morning with miles to spare. Let the fun commence!
Range anxiety, the fear that you will be stranded on the side of the road with a dead battery, is no joke. Until battery chargers are as ubiquitous, and as fast as gas stations, range will still be paramount in consumers' minds when buying an EV.
Although the car may tell you one thing, real-world range depends on how you drive, and it's hard not to mash the accelerator of the 500e to push all the 147 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels. It's a blast to drive off the line, but expect your range to drop significantly the more fun you have.
The 500e's estimated range compared to its actual range deviated wildly during my week with the car. One 11-mile trip home dropped my range only 3 miles, but the reverse, in similar traffic, took a whole 36 miles off the meter. Another time I drove 24 miles to run errands, resulting in only a 16-mile drop in the car's estimated range. After that, I decided to stop keeping track. Some trips you win, some trips you lose.
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Charging the Fiat 500e is simple. It will take a slow, 24 hours to fill the batteries from a regular 110-volt outlet. You can cut that to 4 hours with a 240-volt outlet, the same that powers your clothes dryer if you're lucky enough to have one. Unfortunately, the 500e does not support DC fast charging, which would top off the juice in about 30 minutes.
Fortunately, the battery life is not reduced if you charge from mid-full battery. So you can charge at the coffee shop for 30 minutes, then again while at work with no reduction in battery life. Fiat offers an eight-year limited warranty on the battery.
It's no slouch in the city
Slip behind the wheel of the 500e and the first thing you'll notice is the lack of a gear shift. There is only one gear in this baby, and it's Drive. Insert the key -- yes, an actual key -- push the "D" button, and off you go. The Fiat 500e delivers 111 horsepower, putting its output between that of the naturally-aspirated 500 and and the turbocharged 500, but I was able to cruise comfortably on the highway at speeds of 70 mph.
The real joy, however, is in the city. The instant torque means quick acceleration to avoid slow Uber drivers or lumbering construction trucks. The short wheelbase and quick steering ratio make for nimble handling, and the ride is soft enough to battle the mean city pavement. The power-regenerating brakes have a linear feel and are not as grabby as other electric- and hybrid-vehicle brakes. 15-inch aluminum wheels are wrapped in low-rolling-resistance rubber. The hard tires do take a bit of fun out of the 500e, but allow for better efficiency.
An electric car with a la carte tech
Tech in the cabin is pretty minimal. Front and center is a large gauge displaying current charge, range and speed, as well as a menu for a variety of vehicle systems. There is even a gauge for your driving behavior, encouraging you to keep it in the green for maximum efficiency.
There is no infotainment system, merely a stereo with a one-line analog readout. Fiat's voice-activated Blue and Me system lets you pair your phone for hands-free calls and audio streaming. SiriusXM satellite radio with a one-year subscription is standard.
The 500e comes with a TomTom navigational system that plugs into the dash. Unfortunately, our test car seemed to be. The Fiat website says the TomTom is a touchscreen with over 7 million points of interest. Frankly, with many people using their smartphones for navigation, it's a wonder Fiat still includes this feature.
The Fiat Access app is more useful, with the ability to view battery life, current range, and location of the vehicle, all from your smartphone. If the car is plugged in, you can preheat or cool the cabin using grid power, and even delay charging to off-peak times. The app also lets you unlock the doors, flash the lights, and start the car.
Visually the 500e is pretty close to its gas-powered siblings, save for a few tweaks. The front fascia is a bit lower, and there is a larger rear spoiler, both in the name of better aerodynamics. There is also a rear diffuser and a few 500e badges. Our test car came with the optional eSport package, giving us black-trimmed lights, orange mirror caps, orange accented wheels and some nifty side striping.
The use of hard plastics throughout the interior makes the cabin lean toward econo-box, but the visual of the black-and-orange interior make up for the cheapness of materials. The front seats come heated standard, but I found it's not a steady heat. The seats will go from hot to warm to cold and back again. As someone who is constantly cold, these are not the satisfying bun-steamers I was hoping for.
Passengers sit fairly upright in the cabin, which may be a problem for taller folks, especially in vehicles equipped with the optional sunroof. At 5-foot-9 I didn't have a problem, but those over 6 feet should probably opt out of the window in the top.
Rear passengers will be cramped with 4 inches less legroom than in other 500 models, due to the placement of the battery. Further, space under the hatch is reduced to a tiny 7 cubic feet. I would imagine most folks would forgo carrying passengers and keep the rear seats folded down to permit more than three times the utility.
Buy a car, save some cash
Fiat only sells the 2015 500e in California and Oregon, at a base price of $31,800. Our test car with eSport package, sunroof, and destination came to $34,475. It's a pretty penny for a Fiat, but with a federal tax credit and other rebates, it is possible to shave $14,000 off that price.
Fiat doesn't offer the electric version of the 500 in the UK or Australia. However, strictly for comparison's sake, its US price converts to slightly less than £21,000 or just over AU$44,000.
The 500e is by far the most fun I've had in an electric car, save for a high-priced Tesla. Those interested in going electric without sacrificing style could also look at the Kia Soul EV. If envelope-pushing design isn't your thing and you have some time to wait, try holding off for the 200-mile range Chevrolet Bolt.