Rating: 9.0
Bottom Line:
Bottom Line: Retaining all the pizzazz of the perky 500, Fiat has stripped the little car’s gasoline engine and installed a pure electric drivetrain. Visually strong as cappuccino, the 500e is for California only — so far.
  • Zippy electric power
  • Wow styling
  • A real car that happens to be electric
  • Only Californians need apply
  • No telescoping steering column
  • Rear seats for looks only

Is Italian charm enough to overcome the range disadvantage of electric cars? Maybe California buyers will tell us this summer after the Fiat 500e electric vehicle goes on sale in the U.S., but only in the Golden State. To best-in-class range and fast battery-charging, the 500e adds snappy styling and compelling pricing for a package commuters can find practical. Now with an 8-year battery warranty, and rental and roadside assistance backups, Fiat seems poised to popularize electrics, at least in California's trendy urban centers.

View Pictures:  2013 Fiat 500e

Model lineup
Because electric drivetrains are more expensive than piston engines, Fiat has positioned the 500e as a premium choice in their 500 lineup. Thus the many standard features, including Alpine premium sound with six speakers and seven channels, Sirius satellite radio, plus CD and MP3 capability with auxiliary input, a USB port, heated front seats and TomTom navigation.

That pretty much leaves the sunroof as a standalone option, but does leave room for a Standard 500e trim, plus the coyly named Volume and e-Sport packages, which differ in minor trim items such as wheel designs. Color is where the 500e visual action is. Bright as the Mediterranean sun is an Arancio Electrico (metallic orange) exterior with a white (Steam, says Fiat) interior featuring orange stitching and other highlights. Much darker treatments, all the way to black, are also available.

Under the hood
There are three major components in the 500e's powertrain: an 83-kilowatt (111 horsepower, 147 lb-ft torque) electric motor, a sophisticated control circuit and a 24 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery.

For Fiat, packaging the motor and control circuitry was as easy as removing the standard 500's gasoline engine and transmission and installing the electric hardware. The electric motor is connected to a single-speed, always-engaged transmission conveniently located to shuttle power to the front wheels. It functions just like a conventional automatic.

The 600-pound, heated and cooled battery pack is installed under the floor. This required minor reshaping of the floor pan — only the rear-seat passenger heel room is slightly affected — so battery weight is low and to the rear. Overall, the 500e is about the same weight as its gas siblings, but better balanced, which aids handling.

Fiat's attention to detail was worthwhile. The 500e earns a best-in-class energy consumption rating of 29 kWh per 100 miles, and an official 87-mile range rating. Optimal conditions will stretch that another 10 miles.

Aggressive regenerative braking is another 500e hallmark. The service brakes engage only during panic stops or fast trotting speeds, because almost all normal braking is accomplished by generating electricity and storing it in the battery.

All said, the battery and motor installation is maintenance free; the typical 500e owner might look under the hood once out of curiosity and never go there again. Battery life is realistically expected to easily exceed its 8-year warranty; owners are more likely to focus on the estimated $500 a year "fuel" cost.

Inner space
There's nothing boring in the Fiat 500e interior. The car's stylists have created a charming, airy cabin plush with bright colors and generous features. The feel is definitely "compact European," with window switches and manual seat controls located in the center of the car, rather than outboard as on domestic and many Asian brands. Likewise, a tall greenhouse helps drive away the boring-car blahs, as if the jarring white-and-orange accent upholstery trim left anyone in a funk.

A 2-door only, the 500e offers reasonable access to the front seats, but the rear pew is a distant reach for passengers and a cramped fit. Storage room behind the rear seats is also not a strong suit, but for the commuter and about-town driver the 500e is aimed at, the usual groceries easily fit.

A large, round instrument binnacle and a protruding center console with fun, push-button "transmission" controls sprouting from the lower dash are the 500e's signature interior architecture. An easily configurable, easy-to-read illuminated main instrument display shows what electric-vehicle owners want to know, and includes a speedometer plus a percentage of charge and range indicators, along with a simple color-coded display of real-time energy consumption or regeneration.

Unfortunately, the sliding-and-folding fabric cabriolet roof is not a 500e option, but there is a glass-panel sunroof option.

On the road
If the 500e's perky looks don't win you over, its no-fuss electric drive will. The torquey electric motor gives new meaning to "zippy" at every traffic light; the 500e scoots near noiselessly away from those huffing and buzzing gas engine jobs with ease.

On the open road it's easy to forget the 500e is electric for the first 87 miles: acceleration and hill climbing are on par with mainstream sedans, the ride is occasionally firm, but handling is responsively sharp. Road and wind noise are normal to subdued and, best of all, waiting at stoplights is a quiet, vibrationless respite. Unlike some hybrids, the 500e doesn't turn down the air conditioning when motionless, and you quickly acquire a taste for its serenely powerful motivation in urban cut-and-thrust traffic. Like all electrics, the closer to downtown you get, the more the 500e makes sense. Its compact size is handy in town or on back roads as well.

Right for you?
Fiat has taken extra steps to make 500e ownership easy. To assuage range anxiety there's roadside assistance and towing, and 12 days a year of free rental cars included with a 500e lease or purchase. And Fiat is offering the 500e to residents of California at the same lease payment — $999 down and $199 a month for 36 months — as its entry-level 500 Pop gasoline model. That's a good deal, considering the 500e is much better equipped than the Pop.

If you want to purchase a 500e in the Golden State, the sticker is $32,500, and unless you're a one-percenter there's a $7,500 federal tax credit, a $2,500 tax credit from California, and possible local rebates. Ultimately, Fiat figures the realistic outlay for a 500e is a net $20,500; again, a fair figure considering the electric's content and utility. Additionally, there's almost no maintenance with an electric car, and the energy costs are typically a third of buying gasoline.

So it comes down to if you live in California and if the Fiat 500e sparks your fancy with its nifty electric power — and if its shorter range and 4-hour charge-up isn't a factor. In any case, the 500e is a short-trip runabout for one or two people. For urbanites and a surprising number of suburban commuters it would be a fun fit in the family fleet.

(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

Longtime Road & Track contributor Tom Wilson's credits include local racing championships, three technical engine books and hundreds of freelance articles.