The Fiat 500 Electric lands in Australia next year so we drive an overseas example to see what it’s all about.
Fiat has become a car maker a critic might compare to one of those greying musical acts that keeps touring but hasn’t come up with any new material worth listening to in yonks, and is simply milking its back catalogue for all it’s worth.
The Mazda MX-5-based 124 Spider was a likeable but ultimately forgettable cover album. and the Fiat 500X was an unimaginative and somewhat cynical reinterpretation of old material. Meanwhile, endless new variations on the 500 city car have kept the fans entertained.
But at long last, Fiat may just have a worthy comeback album on its hands. Sure, the all-new, all-electric 500 has a familiar name and (from a distance) looks familiar, but don’t let that fool you: the material here is truly fresh and original, and very current indeed.
Let’s be clear about the name first: this new car is simply called the Fiat 500. The second zero of the badge has a dash in it to make it look like an ‘e’, but Fiat never actually calls the car the ‘500e’. It does sometimes call it the ‘New 500’ or ‘500 Electric’ to avoid confusion – but nowhere does it say ‘electric’ on the car. But who knows, Fiat Australia might decide to adopt the ‘e’ as a local differentiation.
While Australian specifications and pricing are yet to be confirmed, in Europe (where we are testing it), the 500 offers a choice of two battery capacities. The smaller pack comes with a weaker electric motor and is available in the traditional hard-top hatch, while the 500C, with its retractable fabric roof, is only available with the bigger battery.
There is also a choice of four trim levels. Entry-level Action is quite basic and always comes with the smaller battery. Red is a slight step up and offers a choice of the two batteries. Icon comes with the 42kWh pack only and has a reasonable amount of standard equipment. La Prima is similar to a fully loaded Icon. We’d expect Australian cars to have only the larger 42kWh, and Icon offers a good balance of features and value.
The confusing naming disguises the fact that this 500 is a completely new car. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s a re-engineered version of the existing car, but when you park it next to an older one, it becomes abundantly clear that cannot be the case: the new car’s size and proportions are just distinct enough that this can only be a new car.
Fiat is now part of Stellantis, of course, and most if not all of that group’s future EVs will use the CMP platform developed by PSA, which can accommodate petrol and diesel engines, hybrid powertrains and full EV tech. However, the 500 project began before the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and PSA, and it rides on a bespoke EV skateboard platform.
Mechanically, it’s a relatively unadventurous recipe, using MacPherson struts for the front suspension and a torsion beam axle at the rear, as is the norm for a small front-drive car. Not going with rear-wheel drive might seem like a missed opportunity given both the 500’s history and the way the mass-EV market is developing technically, but the traction benefits of RWD are limited in low-powered compact cars like this.
The drive battery under the floor has a capacity of 42.0kWh in most versions, including the car we’re testing here. Of that, 37.3kWh is usable, giving a WLTP range of 320km. The smaller battery has just 21.3kWh of usable capacity good for 190km. That base version comes with peak power of just 70kW, while other new 500s have 87kW.
For a small car, the Fiat is heavy on account of its 295kg battery pack. Its 1365kg kerb weight dulls its performance somewhat, but it still managed to hit 100km/h from rest in just 8.1sec.
The 500 has three driving modes: Normal, Range and Sherpa. Normal has only slight regen, equivalent to engine braking in a petrol car; Range dulls the initial accelerator response and boosts the regen quite significantly but stops short of one-pedal driving; and Sherpa is like Range, but turns off the climate control and limits you to 80km/h.
City cars are generally not known for their engaging handling. Simple suspension layouts, modest limits of grip and generally conservative wheel geometries, intended to promote stability rather than boost agility, see to that. As a result, adequate handling is really all that’s required here. To our great delight, however, the 500 does a lot more than that.
Our test car came on optional 17-inch wheels shod with 205/45 Continental EcoContact 6 tyres. That’s a pretty meaty tyre section for a car of this size and, as a result, the 500 develops more than decent grip and traction, which is something cheaper EVs can struggle with as their more rudimentary traction control systems fail to contain the instant torque. Other versions of the 500 come on 195- or 185-section tyres, so might behave differently.
The car’s suspension is quite stiff and allows very little roll through corners, so although the light steering transmits no tactile road feel, you can be confident in placing the Fiat when going through corners at speed. In fact, it often feels like you don’t need to slow down for corners at all – just aim the car in and hang on, while the agility afforded by the short wheelbase ensures the chassis obeys your instruction in a way that is a bit reminiscent of an original Mini.
Ride and handling remain a compromise, but it’s one that Fiat has struck reasonably well with the electric 500. As well as good stability on the freeway, it offers longer-distance comfort and refinement, although its EV range will dictate how long you can cruise.
Speaking of range, Fiat 500’s claimed 320km was made to look optimistic during our testing, to say the least. With some motorway usage, 225km proved to be a more realistic estimation of available range during test driving in admittedly fairly cold weather. If you stay within the city and if the weather’s ideal while you’re doing it, you might eke out 260km. Frustratingly, the range indicator tends to be optimistic when you set off with a full charge, too.
Charging speeds are decent, but no more. The smaller battery tops out at 50kW, while the bigger battery can charge at 85kW, which means that a 0-80 per cent charge takes 35 minutes.
It has been a long time since Fiat has been at the top of its game, but with this new electric version of the 500, it has finally produced a winner. The exterior as well as the interior design are still as recognisable and cute as ever, but despite the retro bent, it looks thoroughly modern. And for something as style-forward as the 500, that’s most of the battle won right there.
But it goes further: it’s also a convincing prospect to own and to drive. There are EVs with more power and more range, but the 500 isn’t entirely left behind on that score; and thanks to its tiny dimensions and tight turning circle, it fulfils its primary purpose as a city car, too. Although it can’t completely cover its city car roots, the Fiat is remarkably good to drive when you venture out onto the open road.
|Fiat 500 Electric ‘500e’
|42kWh/ x1 e-motor
|Single-speed, front-wheel drive