2013 Fiat 500e

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Some naysayers are already preparing their eulogies for the electric car. They say that have failed. They say that consumers don’t want them. They say the market’s not ready for them. Our view?  To date, they’ve been a tough sell, but there’s some real progress being made. We’re not ready to start cuing Mozart’s Requiem just yet.

Consider if you will the new Fiat 500e, the Italian brand’s new entry into the electric car segment.  It’s great to look at. It’s fun to drive. It’s quick. It’s well equipped with lots of features. And the whole package incorporates some very convincing and innovative motivators to consider one.

From our point of view, there are two major reasons why electric cars haven’t taken off yet. One is price. Electric cars cost far more than their gasoline powered counterparts. The other is range anxiety. Consumers are (rightly) concerned that electric cars won’t get them where they need to go and that they could be left stranded, with no backup in sight.Fiat is addressing both of these concerns in some very persuasive ways. Let’s talk price, first. The 500e is fully loaded, with no options available save for an appearance package and a sunroof. It’s equipped like the 500 Lounge, which is the top trim level for non-turbo gasoline-powered 500s. It is priced at $32,500, but that price is mostly irrelevant as Fiat chooses to focus on the lease price, as their data show that 80% of EV owners have leased their vehicles. The 500e leases for a paltry $999 down and $199 a month. That incidentally is the exact same lease price as the base 500 Pop, Fiat’s entry level and somewhat Spartan gasoline-powered 500 that retails for $15,500.

Effectively, that makes the 500e one of the cheapest cars one can lease, period. There is absolutely zero price premium for going electric; in fact it’s quite the opposite. Going electric actually results in a substantial discount from a comparably equipped gasoline-powered Lounge model.

What about range anxiety? The 500e has you covered there too. How? Does it have a range extender engine, like a Chevrolet Volt? Hardly. Rather, Fiat provides every 500e owner or lessee with a corporate account at Enterprise Rent a Car. The account provides 12 rentals per year (up to a mid-size car) for three years, which can be rolled into subsequent years if the annual allotment isn’t used up. Need a larger vehicle, like a minivan or pickup? No problem – those simply cost more “points”.

We think these are very innovative ways to address two of the biggest issues that dissuade would-be EV customers. And therein lies a key point: Fiat is not going after early adopters or “fanboys”. They are trying to reach out to a more mainstream consumer – a driver who appreciates style, design, and driving enjoyment, but probably wouldn’t have considered going electric up to this point in time due to the aforementioned hurdles.

The attractiveness of the “deal” would be all for naught if the 500e weren’t a good car. Fortunately, it is very good EV (and developed entirely by Chrysler engineers in Michigan, not Fiat engineers in Italy), and a very good car. The lithium ion battery pack, mounted under the car, does not intrude at all into passenger or cargo space (see Ford Focus Electric as an example of how to do it wrong), which is just as well considering the 500 doesn’t have a ton of room to begin with. That low-mounted battery means that the center of gravity is low and that the car’s weight balance has been shifted more rearward, resulting in fun and surefooted handling. That 24 kWh battery pack, combined with a 111 HP electric motor, means powerful acceleration too, with 0-60 mph coming up in under 9 seconds. Combined city/highway range is EPA rated at 87 miles, which is best in class.

It’s great to look at, too. Visual differentiation is light, to preserve the 500’s iconic looks, but there are just enough visual cues to identify it as a special model. Unique front and rear fascia inserts with a dot matrix motif combine with aerodynamic side sill extensions and a roof spoiler, all of which can be painted in black or an eye-popping white.

Inside, there are unique colors and trim as well as a new circular screen display that replaces the traditional gauge cluster. The high-resolution display shows speed, range, power, state of charge, and much more in a very legible manner. A dash-top mounted Tom Tom navigation system with unique EV status displays and a comprehensive smartphone app are standard too.

Unfortunately, the 500e will be sold in California only – at least initially. With such a compelling combination of price, style, and EV performance, we wonder if Fiat will have a bigger hit on its hands than the brand’s corporate leadership thinks it will. Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has publicly said the company will lose lots of money on each one built, and has implied that the company is building them only because it has to (because of California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate, which requires automakers to sell and progressively increase the number of zero emissions vehicle sales year after year).

The company’s leadership thus views the 500e with some contempt. Fortunately, it is clear that those who actually engineered and developed the car do not. With as convincing of an EV package that Fiat and Chrysler have developed, they might have an unexpected hit on their hands.

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