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Published: 04/16/2013 - by Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Driving a pure electric car like the 2013 Fiat 500e makes you think about range a bit differently. Halfway through our drive, the charge meter told us there were about 32 miles of range left, yet we thought nothing of it.
In a gasoline-powered Fiat 500, 32 miles of range would have the fuel gauge buried on empty accompanied by a blinking fuel light. If it could, the car's computer would be yelling, "You have one gallon left; find a gas station already."
But in an electric car that touts a range of 87 miles, having 32 miles left seems like a nice cushion. Add to that the Fiat 500e's impressive regeneration capabilities, and a few downhills later we were back to well over 40 miles. It's an odd and completely different kind of range anxiety.
It's Not the Only Issue
Getting over range anxiety is one of the many issues Fiat has to face as it starts pushing the 500e on buyers in California, the launch market for the new coupe. Unlike a hybrid like say, the 2013 Chevrolet Volt, running out of juice in the 500e means you're dead in the water. No back-up engines here.
There's also the cost issue. The 2013 Fiat 500e has a base price of $32,500, pretty steep for a subcompact hatch. It does get you a fairly loaded car, but standard 500s are less than $20K to start. To get over cash anxiety, Fiat has added its own incentives to go along with the many that are offered by state and local governments. Pile them altogether and Fiat says the 500e lands around the same price as a similarly equipped 500.
And if that isn't enough, there's one final pitch: free access to rental cars. Yep, buy a 500e and you automatically get points at Enterprise so you can borrow something bigger or with more range when you need it. Fiat executives told us the idea is to make the 500e as easy to own as a regular 500.
It's Definitely Easy To Drive
Removing barriers to buyers is one thing, but the 500e still has to function like a regular car to make it worth the trouble. In most ways it does feel very much like a standard, gas-powered Fiat 500. The engineers behind the 500e managed to maintain a very respectable 53/47 front-to-rear weight distribution and kept most of that weight of the battery pack low in the chassis. Chief Engineer Brett Giem says the 500e is about 10 percent stiffer than a 500 Lounge model, so there's no obvious feeling of driving a car with a few hundred pounds of batteries slung underneath the chassis.
In fact, thanks to the instant torque of the 111-horsepower electric motor, the 500e feels quick from a stop and continues to pull briskly all the way to highway speeds. Once on the highway, the rate of acceleration drops off considerably, which is not surprising given the car's estimated top speed of 85 mph. The various aerodynamic tweaks made to reduce drag on the 500e make it quiet, too.
This 500's weakest dynamic issue is the overly light steering. There's just nothing there to give you any sense of what the front tires are doing, so it's not much fun to toss around corners. It's a shame, too, as the 500e is otherwise enjoyable from behind the wheel thanks to its small dimensions, tightly tuned suspension and instant power. Even the brakes feel very natural, a common sore spot with EVs.
Very Much a 500
In keeping with its promise to make the 2013 Fiat 500e just another member of the family, changes to the interior are minimal. The only obvious difference is the standard push-button transmission setup that sits where the shifter normally resides. All other controls are standard issue, which is a good thing, as the 500 has a uniquely simple layout that works.
The other notable change is a new instrument cluster screen that blends a traditional speedometer with a battery charge meter and other EV-centric information. It's a setup that's easy to use and manages to deliver all the relevant information you need without looking like an overly cluttered computer desktop. It's necessary, too, as the 500e can go through some pretty wild swings when it comes to its projected range. To help guide you in the right direction, there's even a "trend" indicator that gently reminds you when you're on the fast track to a depleted battery.
On our drive, the range dropped quickly from its fully charged state and then leveled off during mixed driving. Some aggressive maneuvers further shaved the projected range, but once we settled down a bit and concentrated on conservation, we saw the range slowly creep back up. There's not a significant amount of drag from the regenerative brakes when you let off the gas, so we were a bit surprised to see just how quickly the 500e gained back mileage on downhill sections.
A Slightly Different Kind of EV
On paper, the 500e isn't all that different from the various entry-level EVs already on the road. Its maximum range is roughly the same, its price is competitive and the features it offers are right in line with the competition.
What really separates this Fiat from the crowd is the fact that it still looks like a Fiat. Other EVs try to promote their green credentials with bizarre styling that borders on the absurd. The 500e is almost indistinguishable from the standard models save for a few unique body panels.
That alone should be enough to give the 2013 Fiat 500e a chance in the increasingly crowded EV market, especially in California, where style points count as much as anything. The rest of the package is well done in terms of performance, price and flexibility. Sure, the range anxiety issue is always going to be there, but Fiat isn't trying to change the world with the 500e. It's merely attempting to make it a little less of a compromise. For that, it works, and works well.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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