2014 Fiat 500e
2014 Fiat 500e
2014 Fiat 500e. Click image to enlarge

Review by Paul Williams, photos by Paul Williams and courtesy Fiat America

Well, talk about futuristic. One of the surprises for me at the recent 2014 vehicle preview at Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds outside Detroit was the presence of one of the few remaining 1963 Chrysler Turbine cars.

Such a cool vehicle; a jet-engined vehicle as a mainstream family car. We won’t go into the motivations that evolved into such an unlikely (and ultimately unsuccessful) conveyance, but you’ve got to admit, the folks at Chrysler were thinking outside of the box.

Another surprise at this event was driving the 2014 Fiat 500e. Now here’s a much milder-mannered alternative vehicle, and this one – if it could be sold affordably and could find a market – has a lot going for it, especially in an urban environment.

The 500e is an all-electric version of the Fiat 500 that Fiat engineers readily admit was only put into production to satisfy California’s zero-emissions legislation requiring major manufacturers to offer an electric vehicle (EV) based on minimum annual sales. For most manufacturers this is called a “compliance” vehicle, with some reports indicating that Fiat is subsidizing the 500e to the tune of $8,000-$9,000 per car. Cost of doing business, right?

Regardless of the motivation – and the fact that demand for EVs is still very low – the Fiat 500e turns out to be a hoot to drive.

Its range on a single charge (the bugaboo for just about every EV) is claimed to be a reliable 160 kilometres in city driving (and Fiat confidently says you’re likely to do better than that). The Fiat 500e takes about four hours to fully charge when connected to a 220-volt energy source, and is expected to cost about $500 US to operate for one year of typical driving (the equivalent annual fuel cost).

2014 Fiat 500e2014 Fiat 500e2014 Fiat 500e
2014 Fiat 500e. Click image to enlarge

Interestingly, the Fiat 500 was never designed as an electric vehicle, and the 500e is basically an EV retrofit.

We drove it on the Proving Ground’s multi-surface test track and on a dedicated autocross circuit, where its diminutive size and excellent vehicle dynamics combined to produce a most entertaining driving experience. I could certainly see myself zipping around town in one of these.

The liquid heated/cooled battery-electric powertrain produces 111 hp (83 kW), and the car is fitted with a unique chassis/suspension that features an innovative “blended” braking system. Unlike other EVs, which tend to “drag” when you take your foot off the gas, the 500e slowly reduces speed pretty much like a conventional car.

Braking, when you want it, is sure and progressive and entirely generated from the regenerative system until you reach a speed of about 12 km/h, at which point the rotors combine with engine braking to stop the car.

In other words, you get effective battery regeneration, excellent longevity of the pads and rotors (you’re hardly using them) and a very powerful yet smooth and natural, response to the brake pedal.

The steering, also electrically boosted of course, is light while giving good feedback. It’s also quick and predictable, which adds to the feeling of agility.

Acceleration is surprising. With its 111 hp combined with 147 pound-feet of torque, the 500e – even though it’s about 250 kg heavier than the gasoline-powered 500 – feels nimble and eager. It turns out that the centre of gravity is lower than the 500 and its front-to-rear weight distribution was re-proportioned to 57/43 as opposed to 64/36. It’s better balanced than the 500, in other words.

And due to EV-specific sound-deadening materials, the interior is 20 percent quieter than the gasoline equivalent.

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