For the benefit of our newer readers, it’s probably worthwhile explaining how a car with no engine can find a spot among the Ward’s 10 Best Engines winners.
It’s a valid question we confronted when hybrid-electrics arrived in the late 1990s and again when the first battery-electrics went on sale three years ago. That’s when we awarded both the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt extended-range EV, insisting every type of propulsion system, be it gasoline, diesel or all-electric, deserves equal consideration.
If it turns the wheels with enough force to make a vehicle fun to drive, then we consider it in the hunt. Which explains why the Fiat 500e finds itself in the winner’s circle as only the second EV ever recognized in our competition.
The Leaf was the first, in 2011, because WardsAuto editors found it so familiar in terms of the drive experience – the brake feel, acceleration and ability to keep up with highway traffic.
The 500e evolves the principle even further, using the same size battery (24-kWh lithium-ion) to generate 111 hp (4 hp more than Leaf). And even though the Leaf makes 40 lb.-ft (54 Nm) more torque than the 500e, it sure is hard to tell from behind the wheel.
The 500e dashes from stoplights with such confidence that even hard-hearted internal-combustion devotees will find themselves recalibrating their perceptions after a test drive. At least two editors describe the 500e as the best EV they’ve ever driven and praise the natural and progressive feel when braking, which regenerates energy for the battery.
True, the Leaf as a vehicle is more practical, while the 500e has a backseat that limits access to small children. But the 500e is 395 lbs. (179 kg) leaner than the Leaf, and boy, is that lightness noticeable.
WardsAuto editors describe the 500e as a “little guided missile” and rave about its “off-the-charts torque” and ability to “haul ass” to the point that a steady hand on the tiller is necessary with the accelerator mashed.
Perhaps the 500e’s best attribute is its simple approach to communicating vehicle information, particularly range. The Leaf and Volt tend to bombard drivers with so much information packaged in so many ways that it can heighten rather than alleviate range anxiety.
The 500e needs only one gauge with a digital speedometer at the top and range indicator at the bottom. Along the left side is a vertical green bar with a battery icon; as electricity is consumed, the green bar gets shorter.
The right side has a vertical 3-bar light gauge, and each bar is labeled “power,” “eco” and “charge.” Step hard on the accelerator, and the power bar turns red; let off or touch the brakes and the charge bar shines in blue during regeneration.
Cruise at steady state and the eco light stays yellow. Within minutes, the range-conscious driver has learned red is bad, yellow is good and blue is best.
Maybe we are growing more accustomed to EVs, but range anxiety wasn’t a problem this year.
Several editors report having driven more miles than they had burned in indicated range, which maxed out at about 85 miles (137 km) during our evaluation.
Chrysler says recharging takes less than four hours connected to a Level II 240V energy source. Plugging into a standard 120V wall socket will take much longer, close to 24 hours.
For now, the 500e is available only in California, and Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne says the EV ($33,095 sticker price) will not make money.
Hats off to Chrysler and Fiat for taking a chance on the electrified city car. Editor Jim Irwin sums it up best: “If this is Fiat/Chrysler’s bone being thrown to CAFE, they should consider going back to the butcher shop for more.”