As a middle finger to the California Air Resources Board and its Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, Sergio Marchionne might prefer that his company never sell a single Fiat 500E. Never one to bite his tongue, Chrysler Group/Fiat CEO Marchionne has publicly criticized the notion of government as automotive product planner and repeatedly stated that Fiat will lose money on every electrified Fiat 500 sold. But Marchionne isn’t about to turn his back on America’s largest automotive market, so he needs Californians to embrace the Cinquecento elettricoin a way that he hasn’t.
Those who can tolerate the EPA-rated 87-mile range—and live in California, the only state in which it is sold—will find a lot to like in the electric Fiat. The 500’s tiny footprint and busy highway manners already make the four-cylinder model more apt for urban environments. Factor in the electric’s limited range and low-end grunt, and the 500E is best used as a dedicated city commuter. The permanent-magnet motor translates its 111 horsepower and 147 lb-ft of torque into smooth, seamless, silent thrust. Typical of electric cars, the 500E jumps off the line, and acceleration steadily tapers off as speed climbs. Our testing recorded a 3.5-second 30-to-50-mph time—right up there with that of many sports cars—and a significantly slower 50-to-70-mph time. But the surge at the low end more than compensates for the sluggishness at higher speeds, and the 500E clears 60 mph in 8.4 seconds, 1.5 seconds quicker than our gas-fueled long-term Fiat 500.
After consulting with Mini E customers, Fiat intentionally dialed back the regenerative braking during coasting and targeted the same deceleration as lifting off the throttle in a four-cylinder 500. The engineers boast that they’ve mastered the often-botched transition between the electric motor’s regenerative braking and the traditional hydraulic brakes—and they largely have. It’s nearly impossible to discern when the brake calipers start to bite as you push the pedal farther. However, initial pedal response is unpredictable, often pitching car and passengers forward during what’s intended to be a gentle deceleration.
The electric Fiat, with its 24-kWh lithium-ion battery, weighed in 525 pounds heavier than our long-term 500. That extra mass moves the center of gravity lower and toward the rear and raises the floor in front of the rear seats by four inches. Up front, an attractive and functional digital screen fills the instrument binnacle, and the single-speed transmission is controlled via four pushbuttons—like an Aston Martin but with an IKEA aesthetic. Our test car’s only option, the $495 eSport package, added orange mirror caps, body-side graphics, and graphite-colored wheels to the new fascias, unique spoiler, and deeper side sills. (For the full scoop on pricing—including the $199-a-month lease and complimentary conventional-car rental credits, head here.) The eSport package makes the 500E look as feisty as the turbocharged Fiat 500 Abarth, but a skidpad measurement of 0.79 g reveals humble amounts of grip. For the most part, the 500E rides and turns like the less-sporty entry 500. That is, supple damping softens big blows but can only do so much to pacify the short wheelbase. Over the choppiest roads, the suspension is helpless to keep the 500 from bouncing around like a dinghy in rough seas. Complete review on www.caranddriver.com, by ERIC TINGWALL