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2013 Fiat 500e adds zap to a rapidly expanding clan

By Tony Swan, Contributing Editor on August 26, 2013 12:11 PM
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Just as there is no such thing as one rabbit, no carmaker can long survive with just one product. This rule applied even to famous singletons such as the Ford Model T and original Volkswagen Beetle, and it's clear that Fiat has internalized these history lessons. Making its 2011 toe-in-the-water return to the U.S. market with a single version of its subcompact Cinquecento three-door hatchback, the 500 series has proliferated into six different models, including one with five doors and another with no engine.

The latter description applies to the 500e, which is propelled by a permanent magnet electric motor (111 horsepower, 147 lb-ft of torque) sending power to the front wheels via an automatic transmission. Fiat publicity materials laud the pushbutton gear selection, but since the basic dynamic options consist of drive and reverse, that rings a little hollow. In any case, the choices shouldn't tax the driver's concentration too much.

Electrotorque

A single speed makes sense with an electric motor, since max torque begins at 1 rpm, and in the 500e this produces acceleration that's a little more vigorous than that of the standard 500's 101-horsepower 1.4-liter internal combustion engine-even though the 500e's lithium-ion battery pack (24 kilowatt hours) adds well over 500 pounds to the package.

Acceleration diminishes at higher speeds, but the 500e gets off the line quickly, reaches 60 mph in the mid-8-second range, and responds well in the low-speed passing range, 30 to 50 mph.

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As you'd expect, it does so quietly. Fiat took extra pains with the 500e's aerodynamics -- the designers cite eight different aero tweaks, sound insulation to limit tire noise, and of course there's no noise emanating from the powertrain.

The engineers also took pains with the regenerative braking, to mitigate the grabbiness associated with some regen systems. We've seen complaints about abrupt pedal response in the 500e, but in our brief seat time with a 2014 model, brake performance was smooth and the regen function was seamless.

Benefit of Mass

Ride quality is another plus. The e's suspension tuning is agreeably supple, within the limits of a short wheelbase. Handling responses are predictable and respectable, if not inspirational. In this respect, the battery pack's extra mass -- which resides amidships under the front seats -- is a plus, giving the little electromobile better weight distribution and a lower center of gravity than its conventionally powered counterpart.

Aside from ride quality that can be choppy on irregular pavement, the e's only driving demerit, one that it shares with the other 500s, is a steering column that adjusts only for rake (no telescoping feature), and doesn't adjust enough. The top of the wheel rim obscures the turn signal repeater. And of course battery range is an issue. Fiat's official figure is 78 miles, although chief engineer Brett Giem reports regularly exceeding 100 miles in his urban commuting.

Making the range more acceptable, Fiat claims a recharge time of just four hours with its 240-volt system.

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Like all electric cars, the 500e is expensive compared to its standard counterpart. For 2014, the pricing starts at $32,600, including destination charges. There aren't many options -- sunroof ($1050); eSport trim  package ($495); "Steam" interior décor package (creamy white, $395): and two fancy exterior colors, Electric Orange and Bianco Perla (white), at $500 each. But like other electrics, that pricing is mitigated by various state and Federal subsidies, not to mention the elimination of gas stations for the owner's itineraries.

Openly negative about the business case for electric cars, Fiat boss Sergio Marchione committed to the 500's electrification only reluctantly, coerced by the stringent emissions regulations of the California Air Resources Board. Consequently, 500e sales will be limited to California through 2014. Beyond the coming model year, availability in other markets is a wait-and-see

The Rest of the Family

On a national scale, Fiat's big news for 2014, literally, is the arrival of the 500L, a five-door hatchback with ample rear seat room to comfortably accommodate adults in seats with fore-and-aft adjustability, as well as reclinability. The 2014 Fiat 500L is priced from $19,900, and you can see it here.

At its launch, the 500L is essentially a single model. But a high-performance Abarth edition is reputed to be in the works, and other variants are anticipated.

Elsewhere, the 500 three-door range carries over from 2013: basic 500, 500 cabrio, 500 Turbo, and the 160-horsepower 500 Abarth, offered in both coupe and convertible editions.

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