I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve never been a big fan of Fiats. They lurk at the bottom of all the quality and reliability consumer tests and have had a bad reputation for as long as I can remember. Before doing this review I would have never really even considered buying one. But, since I have been hearing some pretty good things about the new electric version of their admittedly handsome 500 model, my interest was piqued. While it wasn’t on my shopping list, I’ve been evaluating different electric cars so decided to check out the electric 500e partly because it’s so cheap to rent one (only $29 per day on Turo.com). I also figured it would be a great way to see if an electric vehicle would fit my lifestyle and if I could deal with plugging a car into my home electric circuit every night.
Turo.com is the Airbnb of car rentals – they have tons of different cars to choose from and had literally dozens of 500e’s in the LA area. I picked up this little black one in Glendale, CA, not far from my home in Northeast Los Angeles. The owner, who rents out two 500e’s on Turo, had both of them charging in his driveway when I arrived. Mine was brand new and I was the first person to rent it – a gleaming black Italian job with orange accents and wheel covers. It’s not the color choice I would have made myself but I must admit it did look good sitting in the driveway. Sporty, aggressive, European, but tastefully cute, it’s not a car I would be embarrassed to be seen in 🙂
The interior of the 500e struck me quite differently than the outside. My very first impression after getting inside was that that it had nice looking and comfy seats, but other than that the rest of the car seemed like a lot of cheap plastic and low-cost materials. This is definitely a car that’s built to a price – a basic, no frills experience. Not only was the plastic cheap-looking and feeling, but it didn’t give the impression overall that it would last very long. I immediately concluded that I would never buy this car even before I turned it on and started driving. Not the best first impression but I was still excited to drive it and see how a 100% electric car does on the road.
The car started up with a turn of the key in the ignition (no remote start on this particular car) and like all electric vehicles (and most hybrids), it makes no engine noise when you start it. The only indication that it’s on is a small “ready” light on the dashboard. This is definitely something that takes getting used to since you never really know if the engine is on or not unless you look closely at that light. Actually, there is no engine in this car, but that’s one of several paradigm shifts you need to get your head around when driving an EV.
Even with the low-ball interior, there is a certain charm about the 500e with its simple, non-pretentious and straight-forward controls and it didn’t take long to figure them out. The only thing that was hard to get used to was not knowing whether the “engine” was on or off whenever I got in or out of the car – I’m just so used to listening for the engine noise to figure that out.
To start driving in the 500e, you put your foot on the brake and press on the “D” button which puts it in drive. I’m not sure how I like this transmission system but at least there’s no CVT. In fact, there isn’t much of a transmission at all – it’s a one speed planetary geartrain with two propulsion modes: forward and reverse. This all works really well actually and it didn’t take long to get used to pushing buttons on the center panel instead of moving a shift lever even though the buttons felt kind of flimsy.
This particular 500e also had a navigation system in the head unit, but it’s made by TomTom and the screen is way too small to be really useful or even legible for my aging eyes. Having used many onboard navigation systems before, I have to say that this is likely the worst one I have tried. Not only was the screen too small to read but the fonts, graphics and UI are terrible and it reminded me of a 12 year old GPS device you’d find in the clearance bin at an electronics swap meet. I didn’t even bother to use it since my Android phone’s screen is almost as big but much sharper and easier to use. I’d have to say the built-in navigation is the one feature of the car that REALLY sucked. I guess most people use their phones for navigation now anyway and luckily I was able to do that.
In terms of interior room and cargo space, the 500e doesn’t offer much of either, it’s essentially a 2-seater with extremely limited cargo room. The back seats are more for decoration and would be uncomfortable even for young children, while the rear cargo area was just big enough to carry 2 – 3 smallish bags with the seats up. I could have squeezed in a bit more, especially with the seats down, but this car isn’t made for carrying loads. The parcel shelf behind the seat is also the smallest parcel shelf I’ve ever seen and makes you wonder why they even bothered including it. Again, this car is a 2 seater with a space in the back to carry small items and that’s the way you should think about it. Forget about hauling any furniture, a bicycle or large items that would fit into a more typical compact hatchback.
Despite the passenger and cargo limitations, the 500e is very comfortable for one or two people up front, even large people. I’m 6’1” (185cm) and felt perfectly fine with plenty of available headroom. The seats are super comfortable and the little 500e feels bigger than it is because you sit tall and upright with a pretty commanding view of the road. In terms of what the driver experiences on the road, the 500e has no major issues and the European inspired cabinet is mostly a pleasant place to be.
So far, it might sound like I’m making a poor case for the 500e, but once you start actually driving, it moves along very nicely and begins to charm you with its cheeky appeal. The electric motor only puts out 111 horsepower but has 147 pound-feet of torque. In such a small, light car, that’s enough power to move the 500e with decided brio. Since the torque comes on immediately, it can launch like a sports car from a full stop and easily chirp the wheels. This is one of the great attributes of electric vehicles, most of which offer similar strong performance from 0-30 and then tend to be less exciting at higher speeds and RPMs (the opposite of most gas-powered cars). I’ve driven other EV’s but the Fiat is easily among the quickest, making it a hoot to drive around town and letting you feel like a teenager as you effortlessly pull away from every stoplight like a race car, ready to challenge other cars in a 0-30 sprint.
When I first drove off with the car, the battery was fully charged. In its full state the 500e delivers around 90 – 100 miles of range, which is prominently shown and continually updated on the dashboard display. I drove around LA for a while, taking some roundabout directions and maximizing my driving time to deplete the battery as much as possible before bringing it home to charge overnight. Part of the reason I wanted to test this car was to see how it did on an overnight charge, especially on the limited 120V household current that I have access to at my home. Is this a limitation that would be a problem for an EV owner? Do I really need a 240v level 2 charger? Questions many new EV drivers need to know and I wanted answered.
After a couple hours of city driving, I was down to about a 60% charge, but still wanted to try charging from a more depleted battery level so I did some additional errands. After a quick blast up and down the 110 freeway (several miles uphill), I was down to 40% battery and in for the night.
The 500e comes with a 120v charger which plugs into any home socket. I left it overnight and watched the red light on the dashboard blink to show it was charging, the light also indicates how much charging remains before full with a couple of bars. Fiat claims you can fully charge it in 24 hours on a 120v circuit so leaving it overnight should have been enough for me. Thankfully there were no problems with the current draw and no tripped circuits, a relief since my home’s electrical system is a bit outdated and only has 100 amps total in the main panel.
The next morning (about 10 hours later), I was back up to a bit below 100% battery capacity, or around 98 miles of range according to the onboard display. This proved the Fiat could work for someone with only a level 1 charger (110-120v) at home.
With an almost full charge, I headed out into Los Angeles traffic, once again enjoying the responsiveness and power of my hot little hatch. As I headed out on the 110 freeway, traffic was heavy and eventually slowed to a crawl as I hit the 10 freeway west. It was pretty much stop and go traffic for around 15 miles but I guess this kind of traffic is what an EV thrives in since not only did the torque make it effortless to move away from every stop but the constant braking recharged the battery enough that at one point I had more range showing than what I had left home with. By the time I reached the Santa Monica beach area (I started east of downtown LA about 20 miles away) I still had around 88 miles of range left. Cleary the 500e does well in this kind of driving, making it a perfect city car, especially for the kind of heavy traffic you see in Los Angeles.
In contrast to the great “mileage” when driving in stop and go traffic, the Fiat’s range indicator dips quickly when driving at high speeds on the freeway, especially if there’s any incline. This is in stark contrast to gas powered vehicles that do best on the highway, an important distinction to realize if you plan on getting an EV.
It’s easy to track all of your cars electric consumption with the dashboard gauge and I think over time you could train yourself to drive much more efficiently, especially in terms of braking and coasting. This aspect made the car more engaging to drive and added a whole new dimension to the driving experience. Fiat keeps it simple though and includes no extra driving modes or additional brake regeneration settings like many other EVs. I didn’t miss these features during my brief time with the car, especially since the learning curve is almost zero without them. This is a good car for an EV newbie.
Continuing my trip, once I got to the beach I headed up to Malibu and then up Topanga canyon road towards the San Fernando valley. This is already more miles than I would typically drive in an average day in LA but I wanted to really push this car. Topanga canyon road is a steep and windy mountain road that let me test the 500e’s handling more closely as well as consumption under heavy load. I’d have to say that handling wise, the 500e isn’t much to write home about unfortunately. It’s not bad, but the car overall feels a bit flimsy on the road and steering isn’t particularly confidence inspiring. There’s body lean and torque steer, but it’s small and maneuverable enough that it’s still kind of fun to drive. As always in this car, the low end power is what makes it so fun and always keeps a smile on your face even if it can’t take corners at high speed and the low rolling resistance tires chirp, complain and lose traction whenever possible.
Headed back down Topanga Canyon road on the San Fernando valley side, I picked up a lot of range since it was all downhill for several miles. Range in EVs is always a floating number, both up and down, unlike gasoline range which remains pretty steady and never increases without putting gas in the car (yet another paradigm shift). You can be all freaked out that you are almost out of battery climbing a hill and then you go down a long steep mountain or turn off you’re A/C and suddenly your range jumps! This is because the car uses “engine braking” to slow the car when needed. The forward motion of the vehicle is used to turn the same motor that the battery normally turns, but when turned in the opposite direction, it generates current which goes back into the battery. You can regulate this amount based on how you drive and the strategy required to increase range itself makes driving an EV more engaging since you can really get into the planning and technique involved in extending the range – it adds a whole new dimension to the driving experience that you don’t get with internal combustion engines.
It also bears noting that gasoline powered cars are typically around 20% – 30% energy efficient, meaning as much of 80% of the energy is lost, mostly to heat and smog emissions. Electric cars on the other hand can be as high as 90% efficient, only a 10% loss!
Once I got to the valley, I headed east on Ventura Blvd and although I had around 30 miles left on the gauge (probably enough to make it back home to northeast LA), I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to stop somewhere for a charge. Even though traffic was heavy (which actually favors an EV’s range) I didn’t want to take the chance of running out of juice and not being near a charger (probably the biggest fear for an EV driver). I checked the Plugshare app for nearby chargers and found a Whole Foods not too far that had one, right on Ventura Blvd. I headed there and drove down into the parking structure only to find that all 4 chargers were being used already. There also seemed to be a Chevy Volt waiting for one of the others to finish up. Welcome to the real world of EV charging! Disappointed, I parked in a regular spot and went into the Whole Foods to kill some time, hoping that one of the other EVs would leave by the time I came out….
About 20 minutes later I came out and found the same EV’s still there, still charging… Now what? I checked the Plugshare app once more and found another Whole Foods a bit further east with chargers. Back east onto Ventura Blvd and a few miles later I found the other Whole Foods. This one had an outdoor parking lot and BINGO, the charger was not occupied! I swooped in and grabbed it, got out and went into the Whole Foods to have a bite and do some shopping. About half an hour later on the level 2 charger I came back and the car had added about 15 miles of range, enough of a cushion to make it home without any range anxiety.
Due to HEAVY traffic, I got home much later that night after dealing with the crazy rush hour LA traffic which actually lasts for several hours from around 3 to 8pm. Despite the stop and go driving, the little Fiat seems is in its element driving in these conditions and once again the constant braking and slow speeds barely pulled anything down from my total range. Rather than looking for a hightway to increase your mileage as with gas powered cars, staying in stop and go traffic is a big plus in a car like this, further proof that it’s ideal for a city like Los Angeles. By the time I got home I still had more than 20 miles to spare. Plugging it in overnight gave me about a 95% charge on the battery by the time I got up the next the morning and was ready to hit the road again. I think I can live with this car.
My final conclusion:
I didn’t expect to like the Fiat 500e but the few days I spent with it were enough to convince me that not only is EV technology ready for the masses, it’s extremely practical for my particular situation and actually makes driving fun. I got addicted to the low end torque of the 500e and loved how I could drive just about anywhere and back in LA without having to recharge until I got home. The Fiat is cute too and super easy to park and maneuver. The amenities were a bit too basic for my liking, but in a weird way their simplicity was endearing. While previously I would have never considered buying a Fiat, the 500e’s strengths as a city car — especially if you have a large second car to overcome the space and range issues — made me seriously consider buying one. On top of that the 500e has probably the lowest lease price of any EV on the market and even lower than super cheap gas cars thanks to all the rebates and incentives. For as little as $99/mo (or even less if you qualify as low income), you can lease one of these cars. That’s about what many people pay for their cellular phone plans. It’s a compelling proposition if the car fits your lifestyle. If you want to drive a luxurious car with lots of conveniences and creature comforts, this isn’t your car. But if you just want a cheap, simple car to zip around in, that’s easy to park and costs almost nothing to operate, this is a solid offering.
My own needs are a little different regarding what I wanted in an EV. In the end, while my experience with the Fiat did convince me that there was an EV in my future, it’s lack of passenger and cargo space, plus the way too basic tech features made me decide against it. If my second car was a wagon or an SUV, I think I might have been more likely to get the Fiat. Unfortunately, my second car is a 2 seat convertible with even less space than the 500e. What I really need is a bigger car that could haul at least 4 adults and stuff like bicycles, TVs, IKEA furniture, bags of compost, serve for Home Depot runs, etc. The Fiat gained a small place in my heart for its spunky nature and excellent performance in LA’s traffic but I ended up going for a Chevy Bolt, a larger car with a 238+ mile range. I’ll be doing a review of that car in the not too distant future, after putting it through its paces. Still, thanks to the little Fiat for convincing me that electric is the way to go.
All content and photos © Paul Vachier
Last modified: November 1, 2017