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My Commuting Life with the Fiat 500e
Fiat 500e electric car driver Brag Bergholdt shares is impressions of leasing his electric car.
Chicago Tribune/USA 12 Mar 2014
I thought it might be a good time to provide feedback at 5,000 miles on my electric car experiment. In October I leased an all-electric Fiat 500e, as the cost of the lease was less than I was spending each month on gasoline to drive my conventional vehicle.
The Fiat's battery range of 80-90 miles presents an occasional concern, but actually gets it done for about 90 percent of my daily needs. There have been a few times I've arrived home after work and there wasn't enough time to charge the car sufficiently to head back out for an extended evening adventure. Or while I could easily make the 50-mile trip to San Francisco, I couldn't be assured I could find convenient or available charging there so I could make the trip home. Availability of electric vehicle plug-in locations is still quite spotty.
I love this little car. It's a blast to drive, with very peppy acceleration and crisp handling paid for with a choppy, firm ride. And it's surprisingly roomy inside. My wife and I are continually amazed at how many groceries or home-improvement items you can cram into the rear with the useless back seat folded down. An illuminated "hatch ajar" light is frequent source of amusement, telling us we have truly filled it. I've only forgotten to plug the car in once, requiring me to drive the oil-burner SUV the following day. My 5,000 mile average is 136 mpg-e, almost 10 times the efficiency of our oil-burner.
The blending of slingshot acceleration, deceleration energy regeneration, and brakes is done magnificently it appears to be 100 percent regeneration until you drop below 8 mph. During firm braking at speed, it's amazing to see it packing up to 75,000 watts of juice back into the batteries. Everything about this car is flawless, except for one silly, one annoying and one truly awful feature.
The included TomTom navigation unit is a joke, plugging in atop the instrument panel in the worst possible place, obstructing vision. It lives, unused, in the glove box. The Bluetooth phone merging is delightfully convenient, but clumsy. About once every seven times, it misinterprets my crystal-clear, increasingly snide requests; drops the link to the phone; or dials the wrong person.
My really serious beef is with a feature called Auto Park. This well-intended fiasco is supposed to prevent me from stepping out of the absolutely silent vehicle if the shifter is accidentally left in drive. This may be great if you live on a salt flat, but for folks that park or stop occasionally on slopes, it's a disaster. Let's say you remove your seatbelt and crack open the driver's door to untangle your coat tail, or in my case get out to open and close a rural driveway gate, the car will violently slam into park if the car creeps slightly or is still moving very slowly as the door is opened. It will also sometimes slam into park as I release the brake pedal to move forward, after re-entering the vehicle. And never, ever turn off the key while still moving. In addition to the unpleasant whiplash, there's a very good chance the transmission may someday end up on the ground in pieces.
Fiat considers this normal operation, even after I've told them several times, "Either Auto Park goes or the car does." Well, Auto Park went away, after I took matters into my own hands. It was a challenge to outsmart the system without any available wiring diagrams, but I'm now in complete driving bliss.
I'm likely in the minority to acquire an electric car without concern for the coveted white HOV-lane sticker. I've only driven solo twice in the car pool lane, and it was pretty cool. The almost-zero maintenance, exhilarating and guilt-free acceleration, cost savings and smaller environmental footprint are what rock my boat.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Brad Bergholdt is an automotive technology instructor at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, Calif. Readers may send him email at email@example.com; he cannot make personal replies.
EV Review: Fiat 500e Electric Car
Aaron D. Bragman gets a chance to take the Fiat 500e all-electric car for a test drive, but concludes that from the 'fun-to-drive' perspective, it's hard to match Tesla's Model S.
Cars.com 16 Oct 2013
The Fiat 500e may just be the best electric vehicle on the market right now. It's certainly the most fun EV since the Tesla Roadster — and if you live in certain California communities, it's a bargain to boot.
There are basically two kinds of electric cars: ones that automakers are trying to get the public interested in to show how green they are, and ones that automakers build in order to satisfy local laws. Cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt are the first kind: global animals that are as much research tools as commuter cars, designed to be the first wave of a new kind of "clean" transportation. And then there are the second kind, cars like the Toyota RAV4 EV and Chevrolet Spark EV, built thanks to a California regulation that requires automakers to sell a certain percentage of "zero-emissions vehicles" in the state if they want to avoid hefty fines. The new-for-2013 Fiat 500e is one of the latter EVs, something often called a "compliance EV." It's currently sold only in California, and the head of Fiat himself has spoken of the car with surprising disdain. This is unfortunate, as the new electric Fiat is a fantastic little car — one of the best small cars I've ever driven, electric or otherwise.
More Than a Power Wheel for Grown-Ups
Start with a Fiat 500 minicar, remove the engine and transmission, then replace them with a 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, an 83-kW electric motor and a single-speed transmission. What that translates into is 111 horsepower and 147 pounds-feet of torque. That's more than the gas-powered base model's 101 hp, 1.4-liter four-cylinder, but less than the fire-breathing Abarth model's 160 turbocharged hp. The thing is, those 147 pounds-feet of torque all happen at zero rpm. That means off-the-line acceleration is strong, it feels seriously quick and it's enough to burn the front tires for a good 5 feet if you turn off the traction control and mash the accelerator. The fact that it weighs 600 pounds more than a base 500 means it's not likely the quickest of the bunch, but you wouldn't know that from driving it. With a complete lack of engine noise and a seamless rush of electric grunt, the 500e feels significantly quicker and more powerful than it actually is. This is an astonishingly fun little car, both in spite of and thanks to its electric powertrain.
Handling is another strong point for the 500e. The rear axle is the beefier unit from the Abarth, and staggered-width tires (16 x 5.5 inches up front, 16 x 6.5 inches in back) combine with stiffer springs to make for a tight-handling, electric-go-kart feel. The 500e pushes in corners, understeering due to the considerable weight addition, but handling is truly impressive. The lithium-ion battery pack is flat and sandwiched under the passenger compartment from front to back. Putting that much mass at the lowest point in the car makes it feel planted and remarkably stable. It rides amazingly smoothly for such a short-wheelbase vehicle, soaking up bumps with ease and not disturbing the passenger compartment. At highway speeds, the car is eerily silent; the only sounds are wind rush and tire noise, neither of which is all that loud or intrusive.
The brakes are strong and incorporate a regenerative mode that is completely undetectable. Most EVs have a special "low" gear setting on the transmission selector that activates more-aggressive regeneration (like "B" on a Toyota Prius or "Low" on a Chevy Volt), but the 500e makes do only with Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive, available through buttons where the gearshift would be. Regeneration occurs when you lift off the throttle and, more energetically, upon light brake application, using the electric motor to slow the vehicle instead of the actual brakes, which blend in seamlessly as you call up more braking force. In other words, it feels just like a normal car — an exceptional accomplishment for an EV, and one that few automakers have been able to duplicate.
Fun, But Efficient Too
People generally do not buy EVs because they're fun but because they're efficient, because they're supposedly "greener" than gas-powered vehicles and because they can save money on fuel. The 500e is right up there with the best of them, rated at 116 mpg-equivalent by the EPA. Because nobody understands what mpg-e is, however, a better descriptor might be range with a fully charged battery — rated conservatively by Fiat at about 80 miles in mixed use or more than 100 miles in city driving. The EPA rates its range at 87 miles. Over time, I found Fiat's estimate to be an accurate one. Taking possession of the car with just 21 miles of range left in it (according to the multifunction LCD screen in the gauge display), I drove it home on back roads 17.5 miles — and had 16 miles of range left when I got home to plug it in. As I continued to drive it over the next several days, charging it up again and again, the estimated range began to climb. What started as a maximum of 80 miles of predicted range on a full charge at the start of my test had climbed to 93 miles by the end of it. I have no doubt the car can go 100 miles or more in city driving, when speeds are kept to 60 mph and lower. Range anxiety is fairly minimal, and if you have to go farther than 100 miles, each new Fiat 500e comes with a complimentary voucher for 12 days' worth of rental cars at Hertz or Enterprise.
Recharging takes just less than four hours on a dedicated 240-volt system, or nearly 24 hours on a standard household 120-volt outlet. The 24-kwh battery is large, bigger than the 16.5 kwh one in a gas/electric Chevy Volt and the same size as the one in the Nissan Leaf. The difference between the Fiat and Nissan, however, is that the Fiat's battery is liquid cooled and heated, the better to maintain longevity and performance, whereas the Nissan's is cooled by ambient airflow. Like other EVs, there's a built-in timer function: Set it to start charging late at night, when electricity rates are cheapest, and you can save even more money.
But how much does the car itself really save you? At a national average of 12 cents per kwh for electricity, it should cost no more than roughly $3 to fully charge the 500e, and with a 100-mile range, that works out to about 3 cents per mile to operate in the city. Compare that with a base, gas-powered, manual Fiat 500, with its 31 mpg in the city and 10.5-gallon fuel tank: At a national average of $4/gallon, it costs $42 to fill the tank, and you could theoretically go a maximum of 326 miles on it in the city, costing you 13 cents per mile. The EPA says you can save nearly $6,000 in fuel costs over five years, which seems a little optimistic unless fuel prices become dramatically higher, but there is indeed savings to be had.
Fun to Drive, Fun to Look At
The 500e is something of a caricature, a cartoony little car that exudes playfulness in its styling. Outside, a few styling tweaks give the car away as a 500e: a new front bumper, unique wheels, and orange or white trim colors (depending on the body color you choose) show this isn't the standard 500 or even the sporty Abarth. The enhancements reportedly improve aerodynamic efficiency by 13 percent overall.
The same playfulness is found in the interior, which in the 500e can be either dark gray or white, both with orange trim. Leather seats are standard. The dark color is definitely the preferable color choice to my eyes; the white and orange alternative looks a bit too Creamsicle. Controls are all familiar, with only the aforementioned missing shifter standing out as unusual. As in other 500 models, the seats are unusually tall and do not adjust down far enough for anyone taller than 5-foot-11 to fit without their head brushing the headliner; the passenger seat does not adjust for height at all. Those seats are also rather firm and flat — not conducive for aggressive driving. Thankfully, space is tight enough in the 500e that you won't be rattling around in the interior anyway. The backseat is the perfect place to put people you hate.
As quirky and fun as the 500e interior is, there is some room for improvement. Seat comfort is one, but the multimedia system is the bigger one. An ancient-looking radio is the only option, and it's one of the worst systems I've tried in a long time. It sounds fine, but its extremely limited function and capabilities are embarrassing, especially for a company that now has access to the industry benchmark Chrysler Uconnect system.
The rest of the 500e's electronics are far more impressive. The central round gauge cluster is one big LCD with multifunction options, able to display vehicle status, charge level, driving style (eco-friendly or not), efficiency numbers, and even instant motor-power output. An available remote smartphone app lets you control and monitor the car's charging. A large lozenge-shaped plastic display on top of the dashboard lights up when the car is plugged in to charge, lighting up any of five bars to show charging progress, like a cellphone. It's visible from anywhere around the car, and is a great visual confirmation after you've plugged the car in.
No crash-test ratings are available for the electric 500e. The normal Fiat 500 scored mixed ratings in both National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests. Buyers worried about driving such a tiny car amid the Chevy Suburbans on American highways should know that the car comes with front, side, curtain and driver's knee airbags. A rear park assist system and electronic stability control are also standard. See safety specifications listed here.
500e in the Market
The question of how much the 500e costs is a tricky one and depends entirely on geography. The sticker price is $32,600, including an $800 destination charge. My test car had an optional $495 eSport Package, which included orange mirrors, a body stripe, 15-inch aluminum wheels and smoked head and taillights for a total of $33,895. There are a few caveats, however: You can only buy this car in California, which is both a good and a bad thing. The 500e qualifies for a $7,500 federal income-tax credit, plus another $2,500 from the California Clean Vehicle Rebate Project. If you live in the San Joaquin Valley, you could qualify for another $3,000 rebate as part of that area's Drive Clean! initiative. Add in Fiat's own $2,000 incentive currently being offered, and suddenly that $33,895 car has dropped to just less than $19,000, or the price of a nice gas-powered 500 Lounge trim. Of course, this assumes you qualify for all the credits and rebates as well — the federal $7,500 is an income-tax credit, not a rebate, so whether or not to include it in the calculation is up to you. Alternately, you could pick up one of the lease deals Fiat is offering, as well, at $999 down and $199/month for 36 months. Build one for yourself here.
Competing electric vehicles are more numerous than they once were. In terms of size, the Smart ForTwo ED is the most direct challenger, but is nowhere near as entertaining to drive nor as comparatively spacious. Chevrolet is offering an electric version of its Spark minicar in California, as well, which might be the 500e's best direct competitor. It's cheaper than the 500e and has four doors and four seats, similar range and, most interestingly, a whopping 400 pounds-feet of torque right off the line, good for a zero-to-60 time of 7.5 seconds.
If you're looking to grab that California carpool-lane permit, the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt should be on your list. Both offer comparable efficiency (albeit it's more limited with the Volt's smaller battery and backup gas engine), and considerably more utility with actually usable backseats and superior multimedia systems. With all the California credits thrown in, the Leaf and Volt come out to be similarly priced to the 500e, as well. See how the 500e stacks up against competitors here.
When it comes to the fun-to-drive factor, though, no EV short of a $70,000 Tesla Model S even comes close to matching the 500e's skills.
Wired Reviewer Sees Fiat 500e As 'Next Best' EV to Tesla Model S
Damon Lavrinc is so impressed be the performance of the electric version of the Fiat 500 that plans to be the first line to lease one.
Wired 22 Apr 2013
LOS ANGELES, CA – The Fiat 500e is the best electric vehicle that doesn’t cost $100,000. And it’s the first EV I’d consider owning.
I’ve been looking for an affordable, entertaining EV for years. And failing. The Nissan Leaf has all the charm of a dishwasher. The Ford Focus Electric is a litany of compromises. The Honda Fit EV – while fun – feels like a plastic penalty box. And it’s best to not even mention the Mitsubishi i or the forthcoming (and poorly named) Smart ForTwo ED.
All of these EVs are an uninspiring mishmash of an existing model with a hastily engineered electric drivetrain stuffed inside. You could say the same about the 500e. But you’re wrong. By slapping an electric motor up front and a battery pack from stem to stern, Fiat has managed to make the 500 better than its gas-powered siblings. And here’s the kicker: After spending a day with one, I can say it’s arguably a better value.
Allow me to explain.
I leave a parking lot in the outskirts of L.A. and lay into the throttle. All 147 pound-feet of torque is delivered in a millisecond to the front wheels as I screech down the road. Yes, I just did an (admittedly short) burnout in an EV. Awesome.
As the initial wave of twist begins to fade, the 83 kW electric motor begins delivering 111 horsepower, which is 10 hp more than the standard 500. At just under 3,000 pounds, it’s more than enough to squirt the electrified Fiat through small holes in traffic, despite the extra 600 pounds of weight saddled to the bottom of the chassis by the 24 kWh, liquid-cooled and heated battery pack.
As any driving aficionado knows, extra weight is bad, and two linebackers worth is worse. But in the 500e the extra tonnage is used to shockingly (sorry) good effect, lowering the center of gravity and increasing the structural rigidity by 10 percent. That makes it an even more competent handler than the rest of the 500 fleet, which – if you’ll excuse the gearhead geekery for a moment – has a less-than-optimal weight balance of 64:36 front-to-rear. The 500e has something closer to a BMW, with a spread of 57:43. You just don’t find that in other EVs – except for one.
As you’d expect of something this relatively heavy and underpowered, it’s not exactly a track tool. Zero to 60 mph takes 9.1 seconds, but let’s forget about that outmoded metric for a moment and talk torque again. From zero to 30 mph, few things this side of an Italian exotic could keep up, and over that speed – like cruising on the freeway – all that’s necessary to make a pass is a quick mash of the accelerator. I’ve also have to give props to Fiat’s engineers for refraining from saddling the 500e with some some kind of ECO-mode frippery. It’s one setting, all the time, and you choose how to expend your electrons. And over a 50-mile route, I chose to have fun and still managed a respectable range, with 48 miles left on the battery.
Part of that was due to the canyon roads Fiat’s PR team expertly chose for my drive, which would capture wasted kinetic energy to recharge the battery during my descent. But even with that in mind, the 500e’s range is better than the competition. Fiat claims an 87-mile range and based off my time behind the wheel, I think they’re playing it conservative. Ninety-plus miles should be the norm for the average driver, particularly if you’re spending any amount of time in the Fiat’s prime environment: the city.
That’s where the regenerative braking system comes into full effect. Unlike the Tesla Model S and other EVs, Fiat didn’t go for an aggressive regen feel when lifting of the throttle. It’s just like driving any traditionally-powered car. There’s coasting when you lift and there’s a slow creep when you come off the brakes at a traffic light. This is the only thing I don’t like about the driving experience. I enjoy the heavy regen feel of EVs, but it’s such a minor quibble that I hesitated to mention it.
While the drivetrain is awesome, the interior leaves something to be desired. Because the 500e is based on the $16,000 500, there are cheap plastics, manual seats and only an armrest for the driver. There’s also about five fewer inches of cargo space in the trunk (not that there was much to begin with) to accommodate part of the battery, which means you’ll only have enough storage for some groceries and a toy chihuahua. But Fiat added an organizer of sorts in the boot to make up for the lack of space and swathed the seats in an acceptable grade of leather. And then there are the toys.
Mounted on the dash is a 500e-specific TomTom sat-nav, and while it tends to impede the driver’s view, you can pop it off with ease if you’re not interested in the nearest charging stations or seeing your “circle of range.” A thin-film transistor display is mounted in the center of the instrument cluster to keep tabs on speed, range, power output and other basic information. It doesn’t have leaves or green lights or gimmicky eco-conscious back-patting – it looks like it came out of a concept car and it’s freaking cool. As is the single-speed push-button transmission selector that’s a dead-ringer for the unit in modern Aston Martins. Again, cool.
Here’s where Fiat gets to take my money.
And here’s a novel idea every automaker should adopt for their own EVs: on the center of the dash is an LED charge indicator that you can see from 50 feet away. In the daylight. With sunglasses on. Then there’s the smartphone app that allows you to keep tabs on battery status, set charging times, unlock the car, pre-heat or cool the interior and the battery and honk the horn – especially fun to terrorize people checking out the flashy orange paint and white interior (For the record, I’m opting for the dark grey exterior with orange accents and more subtle black interior).
So what’s the downside? First, the 500e is only available in California. Second, it’s basically double the cost of the entry-level 500 at $32,500.
For a three-year lease, I put $995 down and pay $199 a month. If you price out a similarly specced 500 Pop model, that’s the same exact price. That’s right. Fiat has managed to lease the 500e for the same payment as its gasoline counterpart – which is probably one of the reasons they’re rumored to be losing around $10,000 a piece on each 500e they sell. Fiat’s loss, my gain, here’s my credit report.
And just to sweeten the deal, they’ve partnered with Enterprise to give you 12 free day-long rentals a year for those times you need to drive further (or haul something) that the 500e can’t handle. Oh, and they’ll roll in the $1,995 cost of the charger and installation into the lease price.
So what Fiat’s done is make an affordable, barely compromised, stylish EV that not only gives enthusiasts an electric car with character, it’s so damn inexpensive you’d be a fool for not putting it at the top of your EV short list. And it’s a short list to begin with.
Sales are slated to begin in May. The line starts behind me.
Fiat 500e Electric Car Priced at $32,500
California buyers can purchase the 500e for as low as $21,200 once federal credits, state incentives, and factory rebates are applied.
Automobile Magazine 17 Apr 2013
Fiat announced that its 2013 500e electric car will be priced at $32,500 (including the $700 destination charge) when it goes on sale this summer. Included in the price is an innovative “alternative transportation” credit that gives owners limited access to other cars for trips that exceed the 500e’s range.
The 500e’s base price, of course, excludes a number of tax credits, which vary by state. Fiat says California buyers can purchase the 500e for as low as $21,200 once federal credits, state incentives, and factory rebates are applied. While attractive, the price does place it above some competitors including the 2013 Nissan Leaf,which can be had for around $20,000 after similar credits and rebates.
Alternatively, residents of California will have an opportunity to take advantage of a lease deal. The three-year lease special requires $999 at signing and monthly payments of $199, which Fiat says is the same offer currently available on a gas-powered Fiat 500 Pop model.
The electric Cinquecento sports a few cosmetic differences to distinguish itself from its gas-powered siblings. It has an EPA-rated range of 87 miles per charge. Fiat is also including a 500e Pass program for situations when owners need to travel farther than the EV’s range. The program provides owners with alternative gas-powered vehicles from the Chrysler family such as a Fiat 500, Dodge Dart, or Chrysler 200. According to Fiat, owners will have “up to 12 days of alternative transportation each year for the first three years after the date of purchase.” The program will be handled through Enterprise and Alamo Rent-A-Car, which has thousands of offices throughout the nation.
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