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TEST DRIVE: 2021 Fiat 500e – Electrifyingly Retro

There are few names in the automotive industry today with a history as long as the one behind the Fiat 500. This name has been around since the late 1950s, a time when the roads around good old Europe were dominated by small cars. It wasn’t necessarily out of a personal preference but mostly because those we hard times, as the old continent was still recuperating from World War II.

Resources were scarce and that forced car makers to find innovative ways of making cars that would require little and offer a lot in return. It was the era of cars like the Fiat 500 (Cinquecento) or the Classic Mini, both of them being absolute monsters in terms of sales and creating brands that would last for decades. It’s funny to think of it this way, but cars like the Fiat 500 made it possible to keep brands like Maserati or Ferrari still going. But that’s a different story.

Reborn in 2007

Unlike its most avid rival, the Fiat 500 took a break only to come back into the world back in 2007 with a new image and appeal. Ever since, the little car was sold in millions of units and proved that people still have an appetite for small, cute cars, especially in congested huge urban areas. Go for a weekend getaway in Italy or Spain and you’ll soon notice these little 500s everywhere. It is the most successful product to come out of Fiat’s assembly lines in the last 20 years and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

As a matter of fact, Fiat knows it has a good product on its hands and is going to milk it for everything it has. Since 2007, little has changed about the 500. The exterior and interior design stayed relatively the same, with small changes being done to it to distinguish the generations between them. However, unless you squint and look really hard, you could easily say they all look the same. The technical side of things also went largely unchanged except for the engines, that had to be upgraded to keep up with the ever-changing legislation in the EU regarding emissions and the likes.

However, in mid-2019, Fiat announced that it has big plans with the 500. A new generation was in the works and would bring big changes. First and foremost, the car would use a brand new platform. This new platform would also bring a dreaded increase in size and that definitely didn’t sit well with a lot of fans of the car. It may seem odd but the compact size of the 500 is one of the main reasons why people like it.

The biggest change though would come in the drivetrain department: the new 500 would be electric!

Initially, the announcement made it sound like the electric version would be the only one on offer. But Fiat decided to bring a petrol-powered version too. Late last year, the 500e was finally unveiled and captured the minds of many fans.

Welcome a New Electric Fiat

The new 500e does stand out from its predecessors but not by much. In terms of size, it is 61mm longer overall, 39mm longer in the wheelbase, 56mm wider and 40mm taller which might be an issue for some, but won’t mess things up too much.

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As for the design, you’ll notice a few details that will make the car stand out. For example, the headlights now have a sort of split design. That’s because the round shape is now split between the hood and the front bumper. The headlight itself is located on the bumper but the daytime running lights are stuck on the hood, creating a circle combined with the headlight. The turn signals are located under the headlamps and are also shaped like a circle and you could mistake them for fog lights.

The front fascia is dominated by a huge 500 badge that replaces the usual grille older models had. In this case, since this is an electric car, you need a better aerodynamic profile rather than cooling for the ‘engine under the hood’. Therefore, the grille was moved below, feeding air into the system needed to cool off the battery pack in the floor.

There are other subtle hints all around the car to tell you this is a new, electric model. The C-Pillar has a 500e badge at its base, while the taillights also sport a similar inscription on a side. But other than these very small hints, you could easily be fooled into thinking this is just another 500.

The same story goes for the interior even though some things did change in there. The dashboard now has a new design and it does away with the old style one with huge rotary buttons. Nowadays you get a beautiful high-resolution touchscreen on top of the dash, a new design for the air vents and reshaped buttons underneath. They work flawlessly and completely change the experience you get in the car. Another noteworthy mention here is the wireless charging pad under the HVAC buttons which features the Torino skyline. A nice touch to remind you of this car’s heritage.

You’ll also notice the center console is different, leaving some room between the dash and the seats, since a gearshift lever is no longer necessary. Instead, you get buttons to select the direction you want to go in. The design is clean cut and simple and the instrument cluster is no different. It’s basically a screen with useful information displayed in it, with simple and colorful graphics that gets the job done.

Since this is a ‘green’ car, eco-friendly materials are being offered. The textile seat upholstery, for example, is made with recycled plastics from waste gathered from our oceans. The floormats also use nylon from these plastics. Then there’s the ‘leather’. Fiat says its 500e will be using ‘vegan leather’ which might sound good to some, but we’ll reserve judgment for a few years from now, to see how this material copes with the sweat and grease from our hands on the steering wheel for example.

As for the ergonomics, you need to adjust your expectations. This is a small car and you can’t expect it to offer the same levels of space you’d find on SUVs, for example. Up front there’s plenty of room for people of average size. Up to about 6-ft you’ll be comfortable, with plenty of headroom but over that limit, you might start feeling a bit cramped. The rear seats are tiny and may be used by kids and shorter adults but for small periods of time.

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Also, the plastics on the door panels and the top of the dashboard are not of the best quality, feeling cheap to the touch and giving off the impression they will get scratched easily over time. At least the fit is nice, with no noticeable gaps anywhere inside the cabin.

Updated Electric Drivetrain

Apart from all of these novelties, the one area that we can’t overlook is the drivetrain. The new Fiat 500e is here to fix some of the mistakes made on the Italian car maker’s first attempt at offering electric mobility around town.

In case you didn’t know, an electric version of the 500 was offered as far back as 2013 but it was a US-only ordeal and let’s just say it didn’t exactly rise to the expectations people had of it, because of its limited range. Therefore, Fiat decided to fix the issues that plagued the first attempt and bring out this new 500e, this time making it available worldwide. So, what hides under the ‘hood’ of this new version?

A whole new platform first and foremost, aiming to offer more room for bigger batteries, a better ride and extended range. There are two motor choices available but whether you can pick between them depends on where you live, as not all markets get them. There’s a base, 95 HP version and a more powerful, 118 HP, alternative. They also come with different battery sizes. The entry-level choice only gets a 23.8 kWh usable battery while the top spec version can rely on 37.3 kWh. We were fortunate enough to test the latter.

That said, the 118 HP motor also delivers 220 Nm of torque and all of it goes to the front axle alone. Since we’re talking about an electric vehicle, the torque hits you instantly and makes the car feel quick without breaking the speed limit. As a matter of fact, the 500e feels faster than it really is. The specs say it will do 100 km/h in 9 seconds, so it won’t be breaking your neck anytime soon. It will feel a bit quicker though and that’s definitely a plus.

That’s definitely going to come in handy around town. Zipping through traffic is a breeze in the 500e and its still compact size makes it perfect for tight parking spaces. Even though the longer than usual front doors might make it bit hard to get out of the car when parked next to others. The suspension, on the other hand, had to be reinforced due to the added weight brought on by the batteries located in the floor.

They weigh about 300 kilos and that makes a huge impact on a car that used to tip the scales at around 1 metric ton even. Therefore, the ride in the 500e is a bit bouncy and stiffer than you might expect. I’d go as far as comparing it with the MINI Cooper SE’s suspension, only the MINI has an excuse as it is marketed as a sporty model. That’s not the case with the 500e.

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And the Fiat also can’t match the MINI in terms of driving dynamics. It understeers and the weight makes itself noticed as soon as you hit your first corner with a bit more speed than you should. The tires might be the ones making the car lose its mechanical grip, as the 500e we drove came with Michelin Primacy rubber meant to be as efficient as possible and extend the range of the car.

Speaking of which, a lot of people will be curious about this particular subject. Fiat claims that the 42 kWh battery (37.3 kWh usable) in the new 500e should allow you to cover over 300 kilometers on a single charge. Is that doable? Well, during my time with the car I saw an average energy consumption of about 17 kWh around town which would mean you could squeeze about 219 kilometers of range out of it. That was at a temperature of about 10 degrees Celsius and with the heating off, mind you. So quite a bit off from the claimed figures.

As usual, I tried to test out the external range as well but backed off as soon as I went on the highway as I saw how the range was dropping at an incredible pace once I hit 130 km/h. Since the top speed of the 500e is limited to 150 km/h, pushing this car on the highway isn’t the smartest choice. Stick to the city limits and you’ll be fine, just as Fiat recommends.

Therefore, I couldn’t tell you how far you could go on the highway with one of these but I definitely wouldn’t recommend straying too far from the city. On the bright side, all Fiat 500e models come with CCS fast charging and that means you can use up to 85 kW chargers to replenish your battery. If you do, Fiat says you should be able to get from 5% to 80% in 25 minutes which is mighty impressive.

However, we all know how this works. Even though the car can take that much power, the charger itself must also be on top notch condition and that rarely happens. If you have to use a 11 kW Type 2 charger, a full charge should take about 4 hours.

Quirky, But Still Fun

At the end of the day, the Fiat 500e does exactly what it set out to do, offering  decent electric range around town, with a fun to drive chassis and no emissions. Sure, it does have its shortcomings and the real-life range is a bit off compared to the claimed figures, but overall, it still remains the quirky, fun, little bundle of joy we’ve all grown used to over time.