New & Used Fiat 500e: In Depth
2014 Fiat 500e - Quick Drive, September 2014Enlarge Photo
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Fiat launched the electric 500e as a 2013 model, but its sales are restricted to California and Oregon only. That's because it's a so-called compliance car that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles must build to meet California laws that require it to sell a certain number of zero-emission vehicles. While the company's CEO Sergio Marchionne frequently complains that the company loses money on every 500e, the car is well-liked by its owners and one of the more enjoyable small electric cars to drive.
The 500e is a battery-electric version of the three-door hatchback minicar that returned the Italian brand to the U.S. market. It has the same distinctive, cheerful looks as the gasoline-powered models, but it is powered by an electric motor that draws its energy from a lithium-ion battery pack under the floorpan and rear seat.
The 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack sends its electricity to an electric motor that powers the front wheels; it's rated at 83 kilowatts of power (111 horsepower) and 147 lb-ft of torque. The EPA rates the Fiat 500e at 87 miles of range in combined city and highway driving, and a relatively high 116 MPGe for combined energy efficiency. (The Miles-Per-Gallon-Equivalent, or MPGe, rating indicates how far an electric car can travel on the same amount of energy as contained in 1 gallon of gasoline.)
You have to be a Fiat 500 aficionado or owner to distinguish an electric 500 from the conventional versions, unless it's the one in a unique color combination of bright organge and shiny white. Aside from different frontal styling and an altered rear bumper (no exhaust cutout!), the 500e uses the same body panels as any other 500 three-door. The recharging port is even housed behind the flap that usually covers a gasoline filler. The interior is only minimally modified as well.
On the road, though, the 500e is a more refined, smoother, and better-handling vehicle than the gasoline models. The Chrysler engineers at the launch event, in fact, seemed slightly startled at just how much fun it was to drive, and indeed it's far more of a driver's car than the larger and more appliance-like Nissan Leaf (which outsells it at least 10 to 1). It retains the standard 500's "flingability" and road-hugging handling, but it's better balanced because more of its weight is lower down in the car and the battery distribution means it's got more equal weight distribution front to rear.
Below 40 mph, the 500e is by far the quietest 500 model. The only noise you may hear, in fact, is tire squealing if you're driving it aggressively. Compared to its gasoline counterparts, it's sort of what a small urban runabout should be--without the compromises of having to work a small engine hard to keep up with traffic. In that respect, it's similar to the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive--which is a far better car than the gasoline version from which it was derived.
There have been relatively few changes to the Fiat 500e since its launch. For 2016, Fiat is adding a couple of new color choices and it has upgraded the infotainment system to the latest Uconnect 5.0 version. The 500e isn't offered in the two-door 500c Cabrio model, which has a roll-back cloth roof, but Fiat has nonetheless sold several thousand of the little electric cars in its several years on the market. The company refuses to release sales data, but based on a couple of recalls and other data, we estimate that Fiat may have delivered as many as 7,500 electric 500s through the 2015 model year.
The base price of the Fiat 500e is by far the highest of any 500 variant, even the hot-rod 500 Abarth model. But as with most electric cars, the bulk of them are likely to be leased--and three-year leases have historically been a very cheap way to reap the rewards of far cheaper driving on electricity without having to worry about any battery-pack loss of capacity down the road. During 2014 and 2015, Fiat offered leases on the 500e for $199 per month.
GM matched that number for its Chevrolet Spark EV, and that five-door hatchback minicar remains the closest competition for the 500e. The electric Spark can actually hold four adults--the Fiat's rear seat is really only suitable for children. The Smart ForTwo, of course, only holds two people under any circumstances.