It may look like the older gas-burning 500, but this new 500e is better in every single way and not just because it’s electric.
Having driven a 2010 Fiat 500 occasionally over the last year or so, I’ve experienced the good, the bad (and the downright badly designed) that it has to offer. And no more than ten seconds after climbing aboard the brand new 2021 Fiat 500e, I realized that many of those flaws had been fixed and the car ditched its ICE for a clean electric powertrain.
But let’s talk design first. Fiat was clearly very careful when it designed this new 500e, a car that shares no link to the older vehicle, to preserve the car’s instantly recognizable shape. It is built on a new platform, it is bigger and more comfortable, because it’s aiming for a considerably higher price point than the ICE 500 (that’s been around for over a decade now).
The front end might appear very similar, but if you take a closer look, you’ll see it has very different headlights, there is no longer a Fiat badge up front and there are details that make the vehicle seem more premium. For instance, the headlights get very classy LED rings inside that light up, the indicators are LED rings right below and the side repeaters are like little wings that protrude outward.
From the side, again, you would think it’s the same car as before, but this new electric one is a bit bigger. In isolation, and unless you get really close, you may not be able to tell this is a new car, even if it is slightly larger overall. The rear is quite conservative, not straying from the previous car’s design too much, but you will spot the striking LED light clusters and the big spoiler that looks like it came off an Abarth model.
Climb inside the 500e and if you know the older car, you will notice they bare no resemblance to one another. The 500e’s cabin is wider and airier feeling, the materials and build quality are better and it doesn’t feel quite as retro as before. You get a digital gauge cluster, a modern infotainment system (Uconnect with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) and, most importantly for me, reach adjustment for the steering wheel.
The wheel itself has a flat bottom and feels quite sporty to hold on to and it feels like a more premium component. The seating position is just as high as in the old car, though, so if you didn’t like it before, you’re not going to like it now – the driving position in the rival Mini Cooper SE is far sportier, although at leas now the height adjustment for the seat lowers the entire seat, not just pivots it around hinges in its front part.
As I said at the beginning of this article, I drive a gas-burning 500 quite often, and the thing that struck me the most about the 500e is just how much more maneuverable it is. The older 500 has a laughably large turning circle radius – I often have to make a two-point turn in order to get it out of the same parking spot that I have no trouble getting my BMW 3 Series out of. However, in the 500e I didn’t even have to apply full lock – it’s almost as tight-turning as the Honda e, which is class leading in this respect.
The older 500 also had some very strangely judged suspension. It is hard and quite bouncy over bumps, but if you drove it quickly around a corner, it leaned quite a lot. It was literally the worst of both worlds, so the fact that the 500e is far better over bumps is definitely a welcome change, although it still leans around bends if you drive it quickly.
My tester was the more powerful 118 horsepower model (there’s a lower-powered 95 horsepower variant with a smaller battery) whose peak torque output is 220 Nm (162 pound-feet). The sprint from nought to 100 km/h (62 mph) takes a leisurely 9 seconds (although it doesn’t really feel that slow when you’re on the move) and its top speed is 150 km/h (93 mph).
If you opt for the more powerful motor, then you also get the larger 42 kWh battery pack, whose usable capacity is 37.3 kWh and this gives the 500e a claimed WLTP range of 320 km (199 miles), although its real world range won’t exceed really 250 km (155 miles). With the smaller 24 kWh battery, the quoted WLTP range is just 180 km (112 miles), and you shouldn’t expect to get any more than 140 km (87 miles) out of it in the real world.
With a fully charged battery, my 42 kWh tester showed a theoretical maximum range of 257 km, but I didn’t have enough time with the car to do a proper range test and verify the number. Topping up the 500e’s battery is pretty quick, as it can be charged at up to 85 kW, which will bring the state of charge from almost flat to around 80 percent in 25 minutes. If you rely on the 11 kW on-board charger and draw from a wall box, you will fully charge the battery in under 5 hours.
Compared to most similar-size rivals here in Europe, the 500e has a fairly big battery, being beaten only by the Peugeot e-208, Opel Corsa-e and the best-selling Renault Zoe. And the fact that you can get one with a smaller battery for considerably less money will help it sell, especially since for many urban commutes, it will provide enough range for an entire week.
My time spent with the 500e was unexpectedly pleasant. I picked it up expecting it to have some of the same flaws as the ICE 500, but the more I drove it, I realized they had been addressed and the 500e was a much more accomplished vehicle. And since Fiat didn’t mess with the shape of the vehicle too much, it has every chance to be popular, as it should be, because it’s a very good small EV.
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