Fiat’s Electric Car Solves Downsides

Photo courtesy of Fiat North America

2013 Fiat 500e

Last week, I wrote about the Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid vehicle. A plug-in hybrid eliminates the issue of driving range for those who may not be ready to plunge head-on into ownership of a pure electric vehicle.

Then just a few days ago, I went to the media launch of Fiat’s new 500e, an EV version of the cute little Fiat “Cincuecento” that’s been on sale for nearly two years. A couple of interesting pieces of news accompany that little battery-powered car, both of which solve problems of EV ownership.

First, the price was announced. The MSRP of the new 500e is $32,500, which is on the low side of the electric car price spectrum. But rebates from federal and state government, as well as one from Fiat itself, knock the price down to closer to $20,000.

That actually wasn’t the biggest news on price. Fiat announced that they will debut the car with a smoking hot lease deal: Three years at $199 a month, with $999 due at start. (That price already factors in the rebates.) Essentially, you can lease the electric Fiat for the same price as the base model gasoline powered Fiat 500.

Company officials didn’t disclose this, but there’s a good chance they’re taking a bit of a loss on the car to get it out on the road. They’ve had the advantage of watching other companies launch electric cars to less-than-expected demand, only to then have to offer incentives and lease deals to move them. Fiat’s preemptive strike is likely to have orders streaming in.

Another big EV issue is range, as people are used to being able to drive their gasoline cars anywhere, anytime. The 500e’s official estimated range with a full battery is 87 miles, though the cars we got to drive showed more than 90 miles available after coming off the charger.

Okay, but 87 miles still won’t get you very far if you want to hit the road for the weekend or take a driving vacation. Fiat has you covered there, too. Everyone who leases the 500e will get something called ePass as part of the deal. And that gets you credits for twelve days a year of car rentals from Enterprise, Alamo or National.

Want to drive to Las Vegas? Use your ePass credits for a gasoline powered car, even a conventional Fiat 500 if you like. The twelve days are only for entry-level cars, but you can also arrange the credits to get vehicles like an SUV or a pickup truck if the need arises.

The electric Fiat also comes fully-loaded with amenities including a Garmin navigation system. It’s pre-programmed to help you locate public charging stations as you drive. And an app for your iPhone or Android lets you check the status of the car as it charges.

Probably the best part about the Fiat 500e is that it drives a lot like the regular Fiat, although with a bit more off-the-line snap. The beauty of an electric motor is that it produces gobs of torque (147 lbs-ft in this case) which helps you scoot along quite nicely in traffic.

And the Fiat’s crisp handling hasn’t been affected either. The battery adds 600 pounds of weight to the car, but it’s located beneath the rear seat and cargo area which helps the center of gravity. More good news: Cargo space inside the rear hatch is exactly the same as on the gas-powered 500.

No, this still isn’t a “roomy” car. The cabin is cozy, with the rear seat being pretty much only usable to pretty small people. But headroom and legroom for the driver and front passenger are ample. I’m 6’-6” tall and I fit just fine.

The Fiat 500e will only be available in California initially, and goes on sale this summer. If the idea of an electric car that addresses the downsides appeals to you, you might want to get one before Fiat changes its mind on that lease price.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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