Fiat 500e overview
The word 'iconic' gets overused these days, but there really isn't another way to succinctly sum up the Fiat 500. Riffing on the styling of the original 1957 'Nuova 500', since 2007 the 500 has effectively been Fiat. As the Italian giant has occasionally flailed and failed and lost market share, the 500 has always ensured a steady trickle of sales. Even in Ireland, where Fiat sales imploded in the past decade, the 500 has continued to sell in reasonable numbers.
While it might not immediately look like it from the outside, this 500 is all-new, and it's electric. Aside from the subtle badges, which conjoins the 'e' with the last '0' of the 500, the way you can easily tell this new electric 500 apart from its petrol predecessor (which remains on sale, still going strong after 15 years of service) is to look at the headlights - the sweep of LED daytime running 'halo' on the outside edge of the lights extends above the front fascia and cuts into the leading edge of the bonnet. It's a neat styling touch in a car replete with them - Fiat's styling department could be accused of laziness, but really this is a wonderfully styled car, juggling cute and handsome with aplomb.
In spite of the name and shape, this 500e has nothing mechanically to do with the petrol version, and rides on an a more or less all-new, all-electric platform. It's surprisingly high-tech under the retro-looking skin, and comes with a choice of 21.3kWh or 37.3kWh (net capacities) batteries.
Given the way Fiat has fallen off the perch, in Irish sales terms, it's going to be something of an uphill struggle for the new importer (the same Gowan Group that manages Peugeot, Opel, Citroen, DS and Honda) to switch Irish buyers back onto the brand. Does the new 500e do enough to convince, in Irish conditions?
The Fiat 500e model range
Prices for the 500e start at a low €24,995, which makes it the most affordable new electric car in Ireland at the time of writing. That does come with the considerable downside, though - the tiny 21.3kWh battery pack means that you get a range of just 190km on the WLTP combined test. Then again, that's more than you got from a Mk1 Nissan Leaf, so it's not terrible, and on the urban use cycle (and let's face it, this is a city car) you're looking at more like 257km. Plus the tiny battery charges rapidly. From an 11kW AC charger, you can top it up to full in just 2 hours and 30 minutes, while you can fast-charge it to 80 per cent at up to 50kW from a public DC charger. The electric motor delivers an adequate 95hp.
That smallest-battery model comes in one trim - Action - which includes such standard equipment as rear parking sensors, 15-inch steel wheels (which make much more sense for a city car than alloys), air conditioning, digital instruments, keyless ignition, drive attention assist, lane-keeping steering, traffic sign recognition, autonomous emergency braking, electric windows and electric door mirrors. Instead of a touchscreen infotainment system, you get a simple and effective mounting point for your smartphone.
Next up the price list is the €26,995 Passion model, and this comes with a significant upgrade in both battery and electric motor. Power rises to 120hp, and the battery is much bigger, a 37.3kWh (net) unit that provides a theoretical 312km of range on the combined WLTP cycle and which can be fast-charged at speeds of up to 85kW.
Standard equipment, over and above the 500e Action, includes an impressive seven-inch central touchscreen, which includes wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and connected internet services, automatic air conditioning, 15-inch steel wheels with upgraded covers and cruise control.
Or you can upgrade to the €28,995 Icon, and get the same electric performance but with keyless entry for the driver's door, rain sensing wipers, an 'eco-leather' cover for the steering wheel, 16-inch alloy wheels and one-touch electric windows.
Finally, at the peak of the range is our test car, the €32,495 La Prima. This comes with the same battery and motor as the Passion and Icon models, but in equipment terms it adds wireless phone charging, a panoramic glass roof, 'eco-leather' seats (embossed with the 500 badge), a front armrest, exterior chrome trim, a self-dimming rear-view mirror, blind-spot warning, Fiat's 'Co-Driver' driving aids suite that includes active cruise control and lane-centring steering, rear parking camera, automatic high-beam headlights, 360-degree parking sensors, LED headlights, a six-speaker sound system and a covered storage are on the centre console.
You can go two notches higher on the 500e price list by selecting the 500C model, which comes with a full-length canvas convertible roof. That comes in €31,495 Icon form, or it's €34,995 for the La Prima.
Fiat doesn't currently advertise a finance package for Ireland, as all of its finance plans are individually tailored. You can get a 500e with a free home charger, assuming that you are happy to switch to Energia as an electricity supplier, and the deal comes with a 20 per cent discount on electricity prices, too. You can check for the latest offers on the Fiat Ireland website.
The Fiat 500e interior
The 500e's cabin is not only one of the car's most pleasing aspects, but it might just be one of the best automotive cabins around right now. For a start, overall quality is excellent. Yes, you won't have to look far to find some lower-rent plastics and switches - this is still a (relatively) affordable Fiat after all - but in the main, surfaces look and feel good, and the main digital displays, long since a Fiat strong point, look impressive. That does come with a slight caveat, though. The petrol 500 was and is built in Fiat's factory in Tychy, in Poland. All 500s and Pandas built in that factory have had a good reputation for quality and reliability - far better than the sneering received wisdom about Fiats would allow for - but the new 500e is a fully-Italian product, and is built in Turin. It remains to be seen if the good quality will persist.
One particularly good thing about the 500e's cabin is the driving position. The petrol 500 always had something of a barstool feeling to its front seats, leaving you feeling perched-up and rather uncomfortable on a longer journey. The 500e's seats are much better - you're still sitting quite upright, but the seats are broader and deeper, and so you feel better supported and much more comfortable. If you've not gone for the soft 'eco-leather' of the La Prima, then you'll get a seat fabric made from recycled, recovered ocean plastics called 'Seaquel.' It's a nice touch.
In front of you is a neat seven-inch digital instrument display mounted in a 1950s-style binnacle, while to the left is the big central touchscreen, which has expensive-looking graphics and a tolerably sensible menu layout. Underneath there's a rank of physical buttons that control the heating and air conditioning, and beneath that there's a small, open shelf. On lower-spec cars, this is just that - a shelf - but in the La Prima, it's a wireless phone charging pad. Not only that, but it's a wireless phone charging pad embossed with a silhouette of the city skyline of Turin, where the 500e is built (there's a conventional USB-socket in there too). Want more nice little touches? Have a look into the little scalloped door pulls, and you'll find a similar embossed image of a 1957 Fiat 500 along with the legend 'Made in Torino.' Just in case you forgot quite how Italian this car is.
In the dash centre is a row of buttons with which you select Drive, Reverse, Neutral, or Park and the car's systems power-up once you prod a starter button on the dash. Between the seats, the centre console juts outward into the cabin, and at the edge of that jut there are rotary switches for stereo volume and driving mode selection, plus the switch for the electronic parking brake.
The steering wheel must come in for a little extra praise, here - it's a gorgeous two-spoke item, with a wonderfully tactile rim, and neat multi-function buttons for the stereo and cruise control. There are also funky electronic switches for the door handles - you press a small, circular button to open the door from inside, while the exterior handle is a neat, scalloped touch-sensitive item.
If the 500e's cabin has a weak spot, it's in the rear. Well, actually there almost is no rear - the 2007 500 wasn't what you'd call an especially spacious car, and this 500e feels even worse. Legroom can be made just about adequate if those in the front seat are prepared to budge up a little, but headroom, if you're any little bit above average height, is terrible. My head was not so much brushing the roof lining, as it was crammed hard into it. Really, you need to think of the 500e as a roomy two-seater, with emergency seating in the back for extra passengers.
Boot space is also tight, but with 185 litres (with the rear seats in place) it's adequate for a couple of small squashy weekend bags, or a couple of large shopping bags. Folding the back seats is a doddle - no need to stretch into the boot to do it, after all - at which point the 500e has a surprisingly roomy 550 litres of load space.
The Fiat 500e driving experience
Range is the 500e's defining characteristic, and not necessarily in a good way. Of course, this is realistically a city car, and when you drive it in urban conditions it's little short of glorious. At only 3.6 metres long, and 1.6 metres wide (without the door mirrors), the 500e is wonderfully wieldy on city streets. It also weighs a mere 1,365kg in La Prima form - heavy by normal 500 standards but featherweight for an EV, so you can happily fling it about, using the nicely-weighted, fast-geared steering to slip the 500e into gaps that larger cars simply can't access. The ride quality is excellent, too - doubtless helped by the sensibly-sized wheels and reasonably tall tyre side profiles.
At these low speeds, refinement is excellent and the responsiveness of the electric motor (which deploys 220Nm of torque) is hugely helpful when it comes to dashing through traffic. Actually, with weeks and weeks of driving large, heavy SUVs and crossovers in the lead-up to our test of the 500e, it was something of a relief to drive such a small, manoeuvrable car, one ideally sized for urban work. Parking spaces that feel uncomfortably tight in bigger cars feel, from the 500e's seat, like an unoccupied football pitch. This is what city driving is supposed to feel like, and so long as you're using the Range or Sherpa modes (more below), it's helped by very good 'one pedal' driving that feels well-judged in how it slows the 500e down on a trailing throttle.
The 500e is not disgraced on country roads, either. That steering doesn't have much feel, and you can tell that the chassis has been set up more for comfort than cornering, but it doesn't really matter. The combination of lively electric motor, relatively trim weight and tiny dimensions couldn't help but make for an engaging car to drive, and again the 500e's tiny size comes into play - it's a joyful feeling when you notice how much more room there is between you and the white line compared to bigger cars.
Around town, and on middling-speed country roads, the 500e's efficiency and range hold up fine. For daily motoring, its battery is sensibly sized and, as long as you can charge at home, you'll not want much for range. Unless, that is, you regularly do long motorway runs. Now, there's an argument that says common sense will draw you away from buying a 500e if you do undertake regular long hauls, and common sense would be utterly right in this regard. Nevertheless, given the La Prima's price tag, it's hard to justify buying one as a second, or city-only car, and our regular Dublin-Belfast commute put quite a bit of strain on the battery. In theory, a 312km range should have done that journey easily (it's about 180km, depending on your starting point), but even then, the 500e struggled, and its realistic range falls to about 150km if you're cruising at 120km/h. You can select the range-saving 'Sherpa' mode, which cuts back on climate control and other functions, and that does help a little, but really, it's the high sustained speed that's the culprit here. Fair enough, the 500e was out of its comfort zone, but equally fairly a car costing €34,000 should have a broader zone than this. What makes it slightly worse is that the 500e's comfort and refinement broadly holds up at these higher speeds, so it's a far better long-distance companion than its older petrol brother, but far less able to do those long distances in the first place.
Our verdict on the Fiat 500e
OK, so range on longer runs is definitely an issue for the 500e (although it would be much less of an issue if Ireland had a decent DC rapid-charging network). The price tag of this La Prima version is also an issue, and arguably pushes the 500e to an altitude at which it can't operate. However, this is still an utterly charming car, with excellent electric performance as long as you stay away from motorways. It looks gorgeous, has a terrific cabin (tight rear space aside) and it's hugely enjoyable and engaging to drive. Most of all, it reminds you just what a sensible idea a small car is for most of us.
What do the rest of the team think?
I too was charmed by this car. Sure, this particular model is expensive, but actually, there's no reason why an urbanite wouldn't spend money on a town-only car, so I don't agree with Neil's point that the high price brings with it an expectation of a longer range. All it means is that the audience for such a car is quite restricted and it undoubtedly makes more financial sense further down the line-up. Regardless, the 500e is good to drive (not engaging as such, but still fun), has a great interior and looks fantastic. It's the definition of a chic city car and we could do with more just like it.
Shane O' Donoghue