Google+

BBC Autos

Joyride

Fiat 500e: More fun than Abarth?

  • Little jolt
    To fit a 600lb lithium-ion battery pack, Fiat's engineers raised the 500e's body 15mm and packaged the battery underneath for optimum weight distribution. (Nick Czap)
  • Little jolt
    The 500e dispatches curves with aplomb. (Nick Czap)
  • Little jolt
    (Nick Czap)
  • Little jolt
    The 500e is distinguished from other 500s by subtle but distinctive touches, most notably, front and rear fascias with a dot-matrix gradient motif. (Nick Czap)
  • Little jolt
    The motif is repeated in the spaces between the doors and the rear wheel arches. (Nick Czap)
  • Little jolt
    The 500e is equipped with electric power steering, but the leather-wrapped wheel has a pleasingly mechanical weight to it. (Nick Czap)
  • Little jolt
    The tested car's interior, in Steam white with orange accents. A leather-wrapped steering wheel is standard equipment. Bucket seats are upholstered in leatherette. (Nick Czap)
  • Little jolt
    The 500e's charging information is displayed clearly on the digital instrument panel. (Nick Czap)
  • Little jolt
    The 500e boasts a clean, rather attractive push-button gear selector. (Nick Czap)
  • Little jolt
    At a 240-volt charging station, it takes four hours to bring a depleted battery back to a full charge. (Nick Czap)
  • Little jolt
    (Nick Czap)
  • Little jolt
    To the rest of the motoring world's chagrin, the 500e is only available in California. (Nick Czap)

HIDE CAPTION

Automotive engineers generally explain a car’s components and systems by way of physics. Sometimes, however, the heart speaks louder.

Brett Giem, chief engineer for Fiat's purely electric 500e, was relating a story in which one of his colleagues, a Viper-driving engineer who worked extensively on the Fiat 500 Abarth, was so impressed by the 500e's handling during a track date that she exited the car with her jaw hanging open. Her assessment: "I thought I would never love a car that didn't burn dead dinosaurs."

So it was, then, that when this journalist – whose spouse drives that cracking Abarth – recently tested an Electric Orange 2014 500e, it was not without high expectations.

In its second year of production, the 500e is still only available in California, Fiat's biggest US market. The little hatchbacks seem to be multiplying rapidly in San Francisco, their propagation encouraged no doubt by incentives and credits that can knock as much as $10,000 off the car’s $32,600 base price. As for whether it plans to push these sprightly EVs to dealerships outside the Golden State – or outside North America, for that matter – Fiat remains mum.

The 500e is distinguished from its litter-mates by way of subtle yet distinctive details – notably, front and rear fascias embellished with a dot-matrix motif of dimples and perforations. The fascias, along with a number of other exterior modifications, help the 500e achieve a slippery 0.311 coefficient of drag, besting the 500 Lounge's 0.359.

A sensible way to test the 500e's touted stamina and handling, it seemed, was with a modest road trip: San Francisco to the beachside university enclave of Santa Cruz and back, via highways on the drive south and two-lane California State Route 1 on the return. Both routes would cover roughly 75 miles each way, well within the car's advertised 87-mile range, assuming a full recharge in Santa Cruz.

The drive south revealed the 500e to be an adept highway cruiser. At 70mph, wind and road noise were minimal, and with the electric motor virtually silent, the tiny car's spacious cabin made for a meditatively tranquil environment, a feeling reinforced by supportive seats that encourage studiously upright posture. With 147 pound-feet of torque available at all times, merging and passing are quietly forceful affairs.

In downtown Santa Cruz, with 75 miles on its clock, the 500e estimated it still had another 19 miles’ worth of electrons in reserve. Lunch and a matinee ate up the requisite four hours for the Fiat to regain 100% of its charge via a 240-volt public charging station, and we were on our way north.

On the undulations, twists and turns of the Coast Highway, the Viper-driving engineer's assessment proved spot on. The 500e faced down curves with aplomb, feeling planted and secure in spite of a far more supple suspension than that of the Abarth. That suppleness induces a bit of body roll, but nothing severe enough to undercut the 500e’s fundamental fun factor. Like all 500s, the 500e has standard electronic stability control, but the placement of its 600lb lithium-ion battery pack conveys a traction-abetting advantage over its nose-heavy siblings: near 50-50 weight distribution.

Just like miles logged on gasoline, not all electric miles are created equal. Eight miles from San Francisco, the 500e’s dash display reflected only 6 miles left on the battery. Common sense dictated a detour into the city of Colma where, thanks to the altruistic spirit of the EV community, the 500e was able to cadge a quick charge at a Nissan dealership. It's pretty easy being green. Or Electric Orange, for that matter.