Fiat’s first electric vehicle was released 33-years ago, at a time when the world simply wasn’t ready. The 14kW 1990 Panda Elettra was unattractive, heavy, slow and expensive; a far cry from the gorgeous 500e La Prima.
It must’ve taken some guts from Fiat to launch that Panda back then. The lead batteries, which replaced the rear seats, added huge weight. It drove via a standard clutch and gearbox, and had a range of just 100km, and that was if you travelled at 50km/h.
Top speed was a woeful 65km/h and the Elettra was a whopping three times the price of the standard petrol version. We wonder what Dante Giacosa, the creator of the Fiat 500, thought of the Panda, and what he’d think of the 500e. We reckon he’d approve.
Given its performance, and the fact it retains his trademark styling, the Fiat 500e La Prima is streets ahead of the Panda. Its permanent magnet e-motor produces 87kW and 220Nm, 311km of range, and a 0-100km/h sprint time of just 9.0 seconds.
Here in Australia we get just one trim level, priced at $52,500 plus on-roads. That’s almost double the cost of the standard internal combustion engine version. A 113kW/230Nm Abarth 500e is priced at a shade over $60,000 (again, plus on-roads).
This reviewer has been super keen to take the 500e for a spin, given the fact I’ve got a few EV tests under my belt, and thought this might offer some fun factor over some of the vanilla electric vehicles on the market. It did, and it’s dead sexy too.
If you don’t love the look of the latest Fiat 500, you may not have a pulse. It’s bigger in every way, but the change has been executed to perfection. It’s a head-turner, looking properly stunning on its 17-inch alloys, with LED lighting all round.
A panoramic fixed glass roof, tint and chrome side mouldings add to the look. Inside, it gets somewhat disappointing eco-leather seat trim (the stitching spells Fiat though, so there’s that) and steering wheel, a centre armrest, and 50/50 split rear seats.
The audio package and connectivity make up for it. A 7.0-inch digital cluster kicks off a suite of tech that includes a 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system, DAB+ digital radio, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and wireless charging.
Two USB ports offer additional options and there’s quality six-speaker sound. The La Prima also features heated front seats (with 6-way manual adjustment for the driver), climate control, and an auto dimming rear view mirror. It’s a tight but comfy place to be.
Driver assists include autonomous emergency braking, lane keep assist, blind spot assist, driver behaviour warning, adaptive cruise control, lane centring, parking sensors, a rear camera, traffic sign recognition and intelligent speed control.
Weirdly, there’s no electronic stability program, like the petrol version has. The 500e does come with tyre pressure monitoring, rain sensing wipers, auto headlights, keyless entry, one pedal driving and an electric park brake though. It has a 4-star ANCAP safety rating.
Boot space is just 185-litres unless you fold the rear seats down, then you get 550-litres. The 500e is a 4-seater, and rear leg room is virtually non-existent if you’re over about 10-years-old. The glass panoramic roof doesn’t help the interior ambience either.
It would be fantastic in Spring or Autumn, but in Summer, despite a strong A/C system, it makes for a positively roasty experience. A mesh shade-sail like material cover does little to keep the heat out too.
On the road, the drive is engaging. It’s super fun, but yes, there is some heft there thanks to batteries. You feel it when pushing hard through the twisties, but driven within intended use, the 500e is a real joy, and one I looked forward to each day.
There are three drive modes; Normal, Eco and Sherpa. In the first of these, the car is zippy, even grunty, off the lights and feels quicker than the spec sheet indicates. Eco lengthens battery life with increased regenerative braking.
Sherpa is the standout though. This mode cuts back draining accessories such as climate control just enough to keep you comfortable, limits top speed and further levels up the regenerative braking.
We managed 280km against Fiat’s claimed range, and while more would be nice, it strikes a reasonable balance between weight and distance. Charging times are okay, if not great, with a top-up to 50 per cent taking 15 minutes. Going to 80 per cent takes 40 minutes.
We charged to 100 per cent once, from 40 per cent. It took 75-minutes and cost $15.77 (22kWh DC charger at Ampol). That spend added 150km in range, which compares favourably to our Suzuki Swift (which would have given about 130km for the same cost).
It’s no rocket ship, but the 500e feels quick enough and has the oomph to put a smile on your face between every red light. A relatively quiet cabin makes motorway driving a breeze, and one-pedal operation makes life around town a joy.
The ride is sporty, and its clearly been sprung for the extra weight, but when pushed, you do feel the beef and the 500e starts to get some body roll and pitching on direction changes and on/off the brakes.
The latter are actually impressive for a disc front/drum rear system. All-in-all it’s a simple, easy-to-drive set of wheels, with a great turning circle, a good rear camera, plenty of sensors, and decent vision from the driver’s seat.
Operating the cabin functions is easy, there’s hard buttons for the climate controls, and the tech is easy to navigate. What more could you want? Well, more storage for one. There’s a tiny bit in the centre console, where you’ll find a cup and can holder hidden.
The only external cup holder is on the floor between the two front seats, which is awkward to access while driving. The glovebox is small, but okay for a few items. That aside, it’s a car that makes you fall in love with its style and sporty DNA.
The Fiat 500e is not a car you buy based on a budget, nor does it make a whole lot of economic sense. But it will capture your heart, and if you jump behind the wheel, you’ll probably want one, for exactly that reason.
Our test vehicle was provided by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Australia for review purposes.