(Cybertech) – When it comes to small cars, there’s one model that’s always really stood out: the Fiat 500.
Relaunched in 2007 – and revised in 2015 – the Fiat 500 has secured its position as something of an icon. Alongside the Mini, it’s perhaps one of the most distinctive and commonly sighted small cars on the road.
Now with an electric powertrain, there’s a brand new design that harks back to the original 1957 model, wanting to race into a new generation of small car motoring. Say hello to the Fiat 500e.
Perfectly cute design
The new Fiat 500e will run in parallel to the combustion version that’s already on the road in the short term, but it has had a design refresh that’s fairly radical. It’s larger – longer, with a wider track and bigger wheels – but you’ll recognise this diminutive model at a glance, as it retains much the same profile.
This 500e drops the Fiat badge from the front, instead carrying 500 branding on its nose, with a new bonnet lid that’s reminiscent of the 1957 model. On the previous version the bonnet curved around the top of the headlights, now the lights are split, with the top section like an eyebrow on the hood.
The creases down the side of the car meet this bonnet line perfectly, to give a much stronger sense of visual design, while the wider track means there’s a little more freedom at the rear of the car for a larger wheel arch, which adds a strength to the hind quarters.
With the wheels planted firmly on the corners, there’s still a toy-like aesthetic to the Fiat 500. It’s fun to look at; a car that makes you think about youthfulness and vibrancy – although perhaps not in the black version which reminds us of a tiny London taxi.
This is also one of the only electric cars you can get as a convertible. That’s right, the Fiat 500e holds on to the ragtop which is also powered, sliding open to let in the sunshine like a giant sunroof, or retracting down the back for more of a convertible result. The convertible is available on all but the entry-level trim.
That hood blocks the rear view when it’s all the way down, but it’s fairly quick to open and close with the press of a button – a really distinctive feature. Bear in mind that you then lose the hatchback, instead getting a small opening into the fairly small 185 litre boot.
Across this design, it’s all about the little details, but there’s no escaping the fact that this is a small car, smaller than the Mini Electric, smaller than the Vauxhall Corsa-e and smaller than the Honda e too – but perhaps just as cute as that Honda.
There’s also only four seats in the Fiat – just as in the Mini and the Honda e – and it’s a three door design, so very much designed around the two in the front. The rear seats are small, with negligible legroom, so forget about transporting people in the back on a regular basis, it’s just not that car.
A refreshing interior
The interior is more conventional, more mature, ditching the “everything must be round” approach of the previous model and giving a more spacious finish as a result. There’s a natural advantage here: with no transmission tunnel, Fiat has made sure to remove that floor-line obstruction, so there’s more space around your feet.
There’s still a bump for the driver display and the centre display still sits on the top of the dash, but the big round buttons of old have now gone, with increased touch controls on the display, and rows of buttons for important climate controls.
You’ll also spot that there’s no gear selector, instead just a line of buttons to press. In the age of electric cars, poking the ‘D’ button because you’re about to drive is all you need.
The Fiat 500 has been characterised for its body-colour dash on previous models and there’s a number of options here. The Action (entry-level) gets a black dash (the same as pictured); the Passion will let you have black or white; the Icon is body colour, or Technowood; while the La Prima edition gives you the option of a fabric finish- so there’s no lack of character.
Much of the interior uses harder plastics, although we feel it’s more sympathetically done than in the Vauxhall Corsa-e. Fiat’s focus, instead, is on pushing other elements, particularly the Seaqual fabric, which is 100 per cent recycled plastic, of which at least 10 per cent of which has been reclaimed from the sea.
The options available to you are very much dictated by the trim level, with Fiat saying that the Icon is likely to be the biggest seller – and also having the widest range of options.
Those who follow the car world will know that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles merged with PSA to form the Stellantis Group from which we’ve seen a range of electric cars from Vauxhall, Peugeot, Citroën and DS Automobiles. While all those brands share the same platform (so are all very similar) the Fiat 500e doesn’t: this is a platform that was developed by Fiat – so this car is different in many ways and that’s evident from the interior design and specification.
We like the sophistication of this new model and again there are little details that shine through. Take, for example, the subtle silhouette of the Turin skyline in that dashboard cubby hole – which houses the Qi wireless charging pad – or the electric door handles and indoor release buttons.
There’s so much that just jumps out as unique about the Fiat 500e that it’s only really the Honda e that compares. The Mini Electric, by comparison, is much like every other Mini on the road, while the Corsa-e is the same as its combustion siblings – and shares many parts with those other Stellantis Group cars.
A practical technology story
The Fiat 500e feels technologically advanced, although there are decisions to be made because they have an impact on the interior tech that you’ll get. The entry-level model in Action trim doesn’t have a central display, instead getting a smartphone mount on the dash so you can slip your phone into it.
This obviously helps keep the price down and for many, but you’ll then need to have a smartphone to run the Fiat GOe Live app. We haven’t tested this, but we can imagine that you could run Android Auto for phone screens and get access to most things you want. As Apple CarPlay needs a display in the car and won’t run standalone, Apple users would have to find another solution. You can have it as an option on the Action for £850, if you prefer.
However, move up to the Passion trim and you get a 7-inch display, while Icon and La Prime get a 10.25-inch display. We think most people will likely buy a trim level that has a display as it means you can have proper Android Auto or Apple CarPlay – and the good news is that both can be wireless too. There’s USB ports for charging, or on some models a wireless charging pad so you can just drop your phone into the cubby hole and have it charge as you drive.
Fiat’s infotainment system has a lot going for it. It’s better than some small car rivals and we prefer it to the Mini and the Corsa-e, although you don’t get the wow factor here that you get from the Honda e’s wall of displays. There’s customisation, it’s responsive, and it’s easy to click through and get to what you want. We normally prefer physical buttons for major segments, but Fiat has them permanently showing down one side of the built-in display, so it’s easy to navigate.
Every trim gets the 7-inch driver display – and this offers a lot of flexibility, which is why you might be happy to forego a central display at a push, because this will let you move through a whole range of screens to access a wide range of information. Again, it’s a lot more flexible than some models, with controls on the steering wheel making for easy navigation.
The steering wheel itself is great, the bi-spoke design another retro touch, but there’s one thing you might take some time to find: the volume control. This is between the front seats, alongside the electric handbrake and drive selector switches. It’s easy enough once you know it’s there, but we’d much rather Fiat had found somewhere on the dash or wheel for it.
Cruise control comes in from Passion trim upwards; La Prima offers intelligent adaptive cruise control and lane centring (level 2 autonomous driving) as standard – this is also an (expensive) option for Passion and Icon models too – along with some other fancy features, like the rear parking camera.
For a car that’s harking back to its 1957 relative and wanting to be one of the smallest on the road, there’s certainly a lot on offer.
Driving, range and charging
Regardless of the model you choose, you’ll get keyless entry and a start button, but there are two different battery capacities. Again, this is to offer a version that’s as affordable as it can be, with a 24kWh battery for the Action – if you want any other trim level, you move up to a larger battery (42kW) and more powerful powertrain too.
We’ve not driven the entry-level option, but to outline the differences, you get a 24kWh battery, 70kW motor producing about 95hp, and the top charging rate is 50kW – which is what you’ll find in many fast-chargers around the UK.
This configuration is going to be best suited to city drivers, with a shorter range of 118 miles / 190km (WLTP standard), which is going to be limiting if you have ambitions of driving longer distances.
All other models get that larger 42kW battery and 87kW motor, which produces around 118hp. All models do 0-62mph / 0-100kmph in about 9 seconds – so none are hugely fast, but the initial speed is what you feel, regardless of whatever model you’re driving. As with all electric cars, it’s as peppy as you could want it to be, but it won’t win any drag races.
Obviously, a higher capacity battery means a longer range – and Fiat officially rates it at 199 miles / 320km (WLTP). In our own testing, we were able to average about 4 miles per kWh on the motorway, which comes out at about 168 miles; in more careful driving around urban environments with plenty of braking we got over 5.5 miles per kWh – which would return about 230 miles, which isn’t too bad at all.
With a bigger battery, longer practical range is within your grasp from the Fiat 500e too. The car’s economy is still better than you’ll get from rivals like the Honda e or the Mini Electric.
There are three driving modes – Normal, Range, Sherpa – which is an interesting twist on things. Range is the eco mode, while Sherpa is the ‘limp home’ mode, limiting speed to 50mph / 800kmph maximum – meant to be use to get you to a charger. There’s no sport mode and we can’t say that really matters here.
The Fiat 500e drives like a city car, the controls are lighter than light, and the ride is a little bouncy – certainly less forgiving than some larger models – but not too noisy. Road noise will come into the cabin, more so if you have the convertible, but generally speaking, it’s smooth enough.
Speaking of noise, the Fiat 500e has its own AVAS (acoustic vehicle alerting system) which plays Nino Rota’s Amarcord when you’re doing under 12mph to make sure that pedestrians know they’re about to be hit by an Italian car. You’ll catch snippets of this if manoeuvring slowly and you can’t help but smile.
Of course the best thing about small-car driving is all the practical benefits that come with it – you can actually park it, it will nip through traffic and negotiate congested streets – further reinforcing its position as a great car for busy roads.
The Fiat 500e is dripping in style, bringing plenty of style and character to a refreshed design. At one extreme it’s one of the most affordable electric cars around, at the other it’s a highly personalised offering that’s filled with the latest creature comforts.
The design alone will win it fans, although those jumping over from the older combustion version will have to swallow the electric price bump that comes with it.
It’s clearly a car that’s designed for two people, with the rear seats more likely to be used for an overflow of shopping – but the same can be said of the previous Fiat 500. Or all Fiat 500s, really.
As electric cars go, the Fiat 500e is fun, considered and currently unique. We’re sure it will be as popular with young drivers as it is for those wanting a second car for commuting.
The Honda e’s appeal lies in its refreshing retro take. There’s nothing like it on the road and it’s well appointed too, with digital wing mirrors as one example. But in like-for-like pricing, the range is shorter than the Fiat 500e.
The natural small-car rival, the Mini Electric is more powerful, so a little more sporty to drive, but has a smaller battery so offers less range. While it has plenty of character, we think the interior design could do with an update.
Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Mike Lowe.