► Fiat’s supermini goes electric
► Level 2 autonomy
► Starts at under £20k
The original 500 was an attainable and surprisingly practical made-for-the-city transport that ticked every box for a 1950s buyer – it was stylish, cheap to maintain and perfectly proportioned for jaunting around narrow Turinese side streets.
Our more modern version, launched in 2007, did little different and was hugely successful on that basis. But as much has changed in the past 13 years as the 50 the preceded it. So while generation two was simply a modern version of the original car, the model in front of you now represents a more radical overhaul.
Namely in the form of an electric motor and floor full of batteries instead of rev-happy and characterful petrol propulsion – but there are other things too. A sub £20000 asking price for an EV with usable range for a start, plus full connectivity and level two autonomy for the first time in a city car.
All that car for under £20000!
Well – not quite. For that you’ll get a hatchback in the lowliest of the car’s three trims, with the ‘city range’ 115 mile battery. As you’ll have undoubtedly noticed this one is a convertible, which is only available in mid-spec Passion and Icon with the 199 mile battery.
That means finding an extra £3500, a seemingly mild ask for unfettered access to billions of miles of vertical space, in the only electric four seater convertible currently available.
The convertible roof is just as brilliant as the previous petrol 500 – a material panel moves back at first, like a huge sunroof, and then when you press the button again, it slides down and piles up on top of the bootlid. The whole operation takes 25 seconds and you can do this at speeds up to 62mph. Roof up or down the 500e retains a quiet and relatively wind free cabin,
Otherwise the ragtop is no different to the hatch, it sits on the same purpose built platform meaning it’s 56mm wider and 61mm longer than the old car overall, with 22mm of extra length in the wheelbase.
That means interior space is plentiful even with the fabric roof with all its motorised gubbins and rails and such, plus it can be closed from the outside of the car by holding down the ‘e-latch’ button that replaces the traditional door handle.
What’s an e-latch?
Instead of a normal flappy handle the 500e has a button on the outside that you press for entry (or hold to close the windows and roof) and another on the inside to get back out again. There’s also a panic handle underneath for an emergency escape if the button fails.
Within the interior handle is a side-view graphic of the 1957 car and the words ‘Made in Turino’ to celebrate the fact that this car’s production has returned to Mirafiori, plus a sketch of the Turin skyline on the wireless charger housed within the centre console.
Mid-trim cars get a 7.0-inch screen while the top-spec gets a lovely, bright 10.2-inch widescreen with crisp graphics and bold colours, plus wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
There’s a permanent button for the heated seat controls on the touchscreen (a more efficient way of staying warm than blowing hot air around the place) as like with most new model released these days, most of the physical buttons have been moved to the touchscreen. There’s a tiny bit of lag when navigating around the infotainment system, and curiously this is present in some of the remaining hard buttons and switches too, which sometimes need more than one press to activate.
We’re also sitting on special Seaquel seats (debuted on the mild hybrid Fiat 500 which are made from 20% recycled polyester, some of which has been pulled out of the sea. Elsewhere the cabin uses a lot of hard plastic but it’s styled attractively enough for that not to matter, and the body coloured panel in our car gives it a real lift. Depending on trim this is either black or white, painted like the outside of the car, or optionally finished with a wood-effect look.
Top spec cars also get two tone leather on the two spoke wheel, which looks great, and doesn’t bend when you lean on it with your palm for quick urban u-turns. There’s also no gear selector to speak of (because there are no gears) just the usual park, neutral, reverse and drive buttons on the lower part of the dash, and a mode selector by your left elbow. Between the two is a huge gap where the transmission tunnel in a petrol or diesel car would go, and in other electric cars this area is transformed into extra cabin storage, but not in the 500e. This seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity but does make the inside of the car feel very open and spacious.
What’s it like to drive?
Punchy off the line, as you’d expect for a small car with 116bhp and 162lb ft of torque, the latter available from a standstill. That means a 0-62mph time of nine seconds – not record breaking, but it’s the first half of that run where the 500e feels quickest, exactly where city drivers will appreciate it most.
It is nippy off the line but has quite a smooth throttle map so you can get pull away without giving your passengers whiplash by pressing it gently or fire yourself from traffic lights with a big right clog. As a result you can drive it in a really relaxing manner, with little noise but the gentle ruffling of wind around the open roof.
Steering remains one-finger light, perfect for tight manoeuvres, and there’s a small amount of well-controlled bodyroll, which makes the car feel confident and agile but not overly stiff. It’s also really fun to pilot, with loads of grip and predictable handling that inspires you to dive into closing gaps the way only a wheel-in-each-corner city car can. The ride on 17-inch wheels is actually pretty good, and well suited to broken and cracked urban tarmac.
You can also get adaptive cruise control and active lane keep in a Fiat 500e – the first city car to offer this package – which is really handy on the motorway and equally so in low speed traffic jams.
The 500e starts in a normal mode, designed to feel like an ICE car with an auto ‘box, but there’s also a range mode that steps up the regenerative braking to one-pedal strength if you want to get more from the battery. For the ultimate in efficiency there’s also the curiously named ‘Sherpa Mode’, which limits you to 50mph, turns the air con off and has an even stronger regen effect. This is the one you want if you’re on terminal battery and miles from home.
Talking of batteries, you can choose between a 23.7 or 42kWh unit depending on which range you opt for, and both are made by Samsung and hidden under the floor. So the driving position is typical Fiat 500 – i.e, too high.
The larger will take 15 hours and 15 minutes to fill up on a three pin plug, 4 hours 15 on an 11kW charger, and 35 minutes from 0-80% on an 85Kw fast charger.
Most are centred around the age-old problem of putting a tall road tester in a small, and in our case, left-hand drive car. Especially one with a convertible roof.
We’ll update this once we’re driven UK spec right-hookers but from this test drive alone there seemed to be some fairly chunky blind spots – the big a-pillar for a start, plus the rear window is more or less obscured by a combination of girthy b- and c-pillars and the drier’s headrest.
Big door mirrors and a clear rear camera help in this matter but in the cut and thrust of urban driving it’s hard to feel confident moving into gaps without a clear over the shoulder look. The rear view mirror also ate into screen space but again, this is potentially more to do with being tall and sat on the wrong side of the car.
Redlining a petrol Fiat 500 through every gear and hearing the chirrupy protest of its tyres on tight roundabouts as you dodge and weave through city traffic used to be one of the purest and most underrated driving experiences going. Not only was it fun to try and extract maximum performance from its little engines, you felt like that’s exactly how the car wanted to be driven.
Somehow Fiat has translated that eagerness into an electric model with no gears, no valves to bounce off the underside of the bonnet, and a big slab of battery weight under the seats. Best of all, because its torque is so readily available, you can just as easily make progress by wafting about in near-silent peace. An experience only enhanced by an absence of roof.