The Italian urban chic styling of the all-electric Fiat 500e stands apart from the geeky gizmo aesthetic of many small electric cars, including the popular Nissan LEAF. In fact, Fiat’s director of product marketing, Matt Davis, took a cheap shot at the LEAF at the launch event for the Fiat 500e. “Let's be honest, ugliness is probably one of the worst forms of pollution,” Davis said. “The Fiat 500e proves that you do not have to give up on good looks to deliver an electric car.”
The only visual clues that the electric 500 is different than the attractive gas versions are a few design flourishes. When the 500e was first released, Brandon Faurote, head of Chrysler and Fiat brand design for North America, told PluginCars.com, “We didn’t want to shout electric.” So, you’ll see what he calls a “dot matrix aesthetic” in a grill that drops to the bottom of the front and rear fascias, a rear spoiler and the liberal use of 500e’s signature “electric orange” color in the interior.
Faurote calls the electric’s design more "masculine and sinister"—but the car is too stylish and cute to really be sinister. It’s cosmopolitan, fashionable, and perhaps even a little sporty, although some buyers will never warm up to its looks. You either like it or you don’t. There isn’t much middle ground.
Since the 500e’s release in 2013, a number of minor upgrades have been made to the center console. For 2016, Fiat replaced the dash-mounted TomTom navigation system with Chrysler’s native UConnect navigation and infotainment system. Critics aren’t blown away by UConnect’s graphics interface or functionality, but aesthetically, it’s a step up from the awkwardness of the tacked-on TomTom system.
The dashboard is simple, well designed and highly functional. (Although, it does take a few minutes to get used to window buttons on the center stack, and seat levers in the middle, rather than positioned on the outside.)
Fiat has also added new color options. The highly customizable car is available in Arancio Elettrico (electric orange), Billet Argento (billet silver), Granito Lucente (granite crystal), Bianco Perla (pearl white), Nero Puro (straight black) Luce Blue (light blue with a pearl finish), and Celeste (light blue). Buyers can choose between all black and white upholstery with electric orange accents for the interior. The non-electric 500 offers twice as many color choices, both inside and out.
The 500e’s smaller platform cuts the LEAF’s weight by 600 pounds—but Fiat uses a motor that’s the same size as the Nissan compact electric vehicle. Actually, the 500e is a pinch more powerful at 83 kilowatts (or 111 horsepower) rather than the LEAF’s 80 kilowatts (110 horsepower).
“You get more kilowatts per pound. It’s literally accelerating faster,” Brett Giem, the 500e’s chief engineer, told PluginCars.com. Based on our test drive, we found the 500e noticeably quicker and more maneuverable than the LEAF. It was a blast tossing the small electric two-seater around the crowded city streets, hills and highways of L.A.
The motor is calibrated for some tire chirp on launch, and a smooth ramp up to about 15 miles per hour. And then it lets loose with a surge of quiet electric power. “The car loves 45 miles per hour,” said Giem. “It just lives there—based on driving dynamics, the ability to accelerate, and how it beats other cars on the road.”
“This is not an electric car,” said Matt Davis, head of Fiat brand marketing, over and over again. That was his cute way of explaining that Fiat 500 shoppers entering dealerships will get a pitch to switch to the EV. According to Davis, marketing the 500e to the EV crowd would be like using a “scalpel” to slice off a tiny fraction of a small market. The idea is to openly cannibalize their own Fiat 500 internal combustion customers, convincing them that the fun of a Fiat 500 when mashing gears and a hearing a signature exhaust note (especially in the Abarth version) is even more enjoyable when it’s quick, silent and free of emissions.
The small lightweight format does bounce a bit over the road. Road noise is minimal. Highway driving is solid, but it’s clearly a commuter car with only reasonably comfortable seats, rather than a cushy long-distance cruiser. Visibility is generally good, although rear and side mirrors are small.
Engineers did a great job guarding passengers from any motor whine. It’s whisper quiet, in part due to acoustic glass used in the windshield.
The 500e’s low weight advantage—which gives it a zippy drive—also helps with efficiency and driving range. Its liquid-cooled 24 kilowatt-hour battery pack batteries will reliably deliver its EPA-estimated 84 miles on a single charge, or darn close. Official city mileage is 121 MPGe, and 103 MPGe on the highway.
While the 500e provides a guesstimate of remaining driving range, Fiat designers add either an arrow pointing up to indicate that you are likely, based on how you’re driving, to beat that guess—or an arrow pointing down to indicate that you probably won’t get the indicated remaining range in the battery.
In our drive of the Fiat 500e, we managed 43 miles of raucous mixed driving—speedy switchbacks through Topanga Canyon, along the Pacific Coast Highway, and through the streets of Venice—using 48 percent of the pack. The very simple dashboard cluster, designed to be as normal as the gas version of the Fiat 500, clearly indicates percentage state of charge. That’s a very helpful feature—and in our time with the car—indicated that the estimated 84 miles of range is a good expectation for real-world range.
A full charge via the car's 6.6-kW charger takes about four hours. That rate has become the standard for EVs—and the Fiat 500e meets that bogey (avoiding the shortcoming of those electric cars that only offer the slower 3.3-kW capability). You’ll want a 240-volt home charging station rated at 30 amps to take full advantage of the 500e’s charging capability, which adds about 20 to 25 miles of range in an hour of charging.
Fiat elected not to offer Quick Charge capability on the 500e. That shouldn’t be much of a setback for the vast majority of drivers. Yet, the 50 kW public chargers that can bring an EV from empty to about 80 percent full in 20 to 30 minutes is a no-go for the all-electric 500.
Fiat uses the filler-door location in the back right to situate the charging port. That could cause some problems with charging cord management, but the car is small enough that most charging spots should not be a problem. There’s no light in the port, but the inlet materials are bright orange, making them visible in low-light situations.
Obviously, the 500e is a very small car. It offers two doors, a minimal backseat, and merely adequate cargo space in the hatch. If you have a family, or expect to put anybody except small children in the back for any length of time, you should pay special attention to leg room (or lack thereof) in the back seat. Visit a dealership, climb in back, and stay there for several minutes to experience it for yourself.
Unlike some other EVs, most notably the Ford Focus Electric, the Fiat 500e stores batteries beneath the cabin, where it eats up a minimal amount of passenger and cargo space. Fiat says the pack fits “low and aft” under the floor, starting at the front seats and extending a foot behind the rear axle, by raising the floor a half-inch and giving up a few inches of ground clearance. By virtue of the pack, the 500e is, according to the company, 20 percent stiffer (and 10 percent quieter than the gas 500).
Anyway you look at it, the Fiat 500e has limited passenger and cargo space. The car is great for single, or even duo, urban commuters taking shorty daily trips.
The 2016 Fiat 500 got “Good” ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in all categories, except the recently unveiled small overlap front test. Good is IIHS’s highest score. Unfortunately, the IIHS gave the 500 a “Poor” score on the front overlap test, which tries to replicate what happens when the front corner of a car collides with another vehicle, or with an object like a tree, at 40 miles per hour.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the gas-powered Fiat 500 its top rating of five stars for side crash, and four stars for both the frontal crash and rollover tests. The overall rating from NHTSA was four stars. The agency has not tested the 500e.
The Fiat 500e has a base price of $31,800, not including a destination charge of $800. That effectively brings the price to $32,600 but according to the Fiat website, buyers can get as much as $14,000 in incentives and credits, bringing the price down to $17,800 including federal and local rebates. At the dealership level, there are even better discounts to be had.
If you like the 500e though, the best deal to be had is probably a lease. As of July 2016, one Fiat dealership in Sacramento is offering a lease of just $59 per month for 36 months with $4,000 due at lease. That’s an incredible deal considering that a gas-powered 500 lease starts at $219 per month.
Fiat is a very motivated seller. So motivated, in fact, that CEO Sergio Marchionne recently complained that his company is willing to lose $14,000 on each 500e it sells just to keep up with the EV sales mandates. Marchionne doesn’t believe that electric vehicles can be profitable, so in order to appease regulators, Fiat is building a high-cost, low-volume EV and offering it to you for a fraction of the production cost.
Options like the $500 Electric Orange paint, and the $500 eSport package can send the price back up by $1,000 or more. Fiat 500e owners used to have the opportunity to rent any vehicle at Enterprise for one day a month at no cost. For 2016 though, Fiat has discontinued this perk.
The Fiat 500e logically stacks up against other small EVs, like electric versions of the Smart ForTwo and Chevrolet Spark EV.
While Nissan offers a similar attractive lease deal like the one offered by Fiat for the 500e, the LEAF is simply more car—offering significantly more passenger and cargo room. A shift from the LEAF to the 500e would be based on wanting an EV that could be more easily tossed around city streets, and one with more visual pizazz.
The Mitsubishi i-MiEV would be a candidate for buyers seeking rock-bottom EV prices, but it comes at the cost of diminished range and weaker driving characteristics. Mitsu has also announced that the 2017 i-MiEV will be the final model year of production. The Smart Electric Drive is also not exactly exciting to drive, but is the only electric with a convertible top.
Perhaps the closest competition to the 500e is the Chevy Spark EV, which provides the most exhilarating ride of the small EV pack—but doesn’t provide nearly the same chic looks as the Fiat. General Motors will also begin selling one of the most anticipated EVs to hit the market yet later this year: the Chevy Bolt. The 2017 Bolt will have a range of more than 200 mile and should be much closer to a true four-passenger vehicle, but it will cost significantly more than 500e and provides a very different style aesthetic. Anticipation over the Bolt has also dropped the price of the Spark EV down to $69 per month at some dealerships.
The BMW i3, an excellent alternative, is significantly more expensive.
The Fiat 500e is only available in California and Oregon. Fiat’s dedicated 500e website  provides a wealth of tools to build and price a desired model—and locate a suitable dealership. Specific inventory is listed on the site. There is also a price quote tool.