2020 Fiat 500e review: cute Italian city car joins the electric brigade

Fiat takes a leap into the future (and the past) with the third-generation Cinquecento. This prototype more than lives up to expectations

2020 Fiat 500e electric car prototype
The all-new, battery-powered 500e is the third generation of 500. The current Mk2 model remains in production, however Credit: Alessandro Altavilla

In 2007 Fiat held a party in Turin celebrating the launch of its second-generation Cinquecento (500) city car, to acknowledge 50 years of Dante Giacosa’s definitive version and to raise a hat to northern Italy’s industrial past.

It was a riotous affair; I filed an audio report for Telegraph Motoring with fireworks going off in the background like an artillery barrage. After a glass or two with Luca de Meo, Fiat’s Svengali behind the relaunch, at 2.30am I found myself dancing the Macarena in a beautiful piazza with a group of perfect strangers – it was that sort of evening.

The launch of this new, third generation version of the Fiat 500 was understandably more muted. While Fiat’s Lingotto plant in Turin stamped out four million of the 1957 original, the 2007 gen-two version built at Fiat’s factory at Tychy  in Poland has sold more than two million; still a success by modern standards.

Facelifted in 2015, the gen-two 500 will continue in production alongside this all-new third-generation, with which it shares only four per cent of its parts. The all-new 500 will be built alongside Maserati’s Levante super-SUV at Mirafiori, only three miles from Lingotto (the one with the test track on the roof, à la the chase sequence in The Italian Job) and is exclusively electrically powered.

Battery boost

That’s right, Fiat’s new 500 is powered by battery; there’s no fossil-fuel alternative. And what a battery it is. Mounted under the rear floor and seats, with the front-drive motor and power electronics under the bonnet, the 42kWh unit comprising 290kg of Samsung prismatic lithium-ion cells gives the 500e a WLTP Combined range of 199 miles, a top speed of 93mph and 0-62mph acceleration in nine seconds.

The cabriolet version costs £32,000 and the tin-top starts at £29,995 (excluding the £3,000 plug-in car grant) Credit: alessandro altavilla

And the cost? £32,000 not including the Government’s £3,000 PiGG grant for the cabriolet version I’m driving here in La Prima trim and £29,995 (without PiGG) for the tin-top alternative. Both officially go on sale in October when the launch takes place, but Fiat UK has received so many “expressions of interest” that these first cars are effectively sold out, unless you know someone who can queue-jump.

When do we get other versions?

Of more interest to us, perhaps, is when official deliveries start of the less lavishly specified cars, which begin early next year. It’s then that we are expecting the price to drop to about £24,500 (without PiGG), though we’re not sure if those cars will have the same 42kWh battery.

The interior is roomier and more comfortable than the current 500, with good levels of equipment Credit: Nico Campo

Whichever way you play it, this new 500 puts the cat among the city pigeons. Mercedes-Benz’s battery Smart car range starts at £20,350, but has a range of only 84 miles, the rather lovely Honda e costs from £29,660, but can only muster a maximum range of 137 miles. If you can still find one, Skoda’s Citigo e IV costs £20,495 with a range of 162 miles and the most direct competitor, the Mini SE, costs from £27,900 but has a maximum range of just 145 miles.

The new 500e (there’s some debate about the official name, but ‘e’ is incorporated in the badging) will sit slightly above these in terms of range, but below the larger family hatchbacks such as Volkswagen’s new ID.3, the Renault Zoe, Nissan Leaf, or Peugeot’s e-208.

There are complications, however, which we’ll come back to.

On the streets of Turin

First impressions of this pre-production cabriolet around Turin are of a good looking but hardly tiny car. At 3,632mm in length the new 500 is 61mm longer than the petrol version, at 1,683mm it’s 56mm wider with 22mm extra in the wheelbase and extended front and rear track.

The cute looks we know and love have been sharpened for this third generation. It's by no means a small car, however Credit: alessandro altavilla

Most of this is in the interests of getting the mattress-shaped battery snugly in between the wheels and the extended sills along with all the associated cooling. It weighs between 1,290 and 1,330kg depending on spec and it’s nominally a four-seater (though rear passengers have to come to an arrangement with those in the front), with a small 185-litre boot space.

“I was a bit worried about the deep sills which hide the battery,” says Klaus Busse, head of design, “but with the big wheels [17 inch, although there’ll be 15 and 16-inch alternatives] and the body designed to accommodate them, it’s not an issue.”

What's it like inside?

The trim is a thing of great beauty with a lovely surround to the facia, which contains the ubiquitous iPad-like touchscreen jammed into the dash top.

The styling and execution of the interior trim is excellent, with a better steering wheel angle and greater seat adjustment than the current car Credit: Nico Campo

There’s a row of piano-type keys under the screen while the radio volume and drive mode selectors are down between the seats, where the choke and starter were located on Giacosa’s original.

The driving mode selector and audio volume switches are set between the front seats; the original 500 of 1957 has its choke and starter in those locations Credit: Nico Campo

The cream leather seats embossed with Fiat logos of the La Prima edition are simply gorgeous.

How does it ride?

The ride any previous 500, whether a 1957 original or a 2007 gen-two car, has never been a high spot and so it proves on this electric version. The wheels attack bumps and potholes, drain covers are traversed noisily and there’s a gritty quality in the way the wheels roll on the sun-cracked roads of the Piedmont capital.

At one point the road crosses a tram track alongside the River Po, which the 500 accomplishes with all the aplomb and racket of a cutlery drawer dropped on to a slate floor.

One thing that hasn't changed is a harsh ride Credit: Alessandro Altavilla

Fiat knows this, of course, and the MacPherson-strut front and torsion beam rear suspension has a lot to do coping with the extra weight of the battery. One wonders what the additional cost of a set of gas dampers would have been.

More positive on the new car is the driving position, with a better steering wheel angle, greater seat adjustment and believe it or not a lower (11mm) hip [height] point despite the fact you are sitting on the battery beneath.

It’s nippy rather than super-fast, but the acceleration doesn’t drop off until well past motorway speeds so it’s more than good enough for urban use. Push the throttle and you whizz into that gap in the traffic, although judging the size and corners of this car is going to take practice.

The performance is more than adequate around town and it'll keep on accelerating up to motorway speeds Credit: Alessandro Altavilla

It’s manoeuvrable, though. With a 9.6m turning circle, it’s not quite as nimble as the rear-wheel-drive ID.3, or Smart car, but it feels easy to park with slightly over-assisted steering, automatic rear-view camera and 360 degree ‘bird view’. 

One quirk is the low-speed pedestrian warning noise, which is Nino Rota singing the theme from Fellini’s 1973 film Amarcord – weird doesn’t even begin to describe this.

Choice of driving modes

There are three driving modes: Normal, where the AC synchronous motor gives its full 87kW/220Nm (117bhp/162lb ft); Range, in which the output is the same but lifting the throttle activates partial regeneration braking up to 0.25g (which is common on electric cars, if not the safest way of driving); and Sherpa, where the motor is restricted to 57kW, top speed to 50mph and the air-conditioning, heated seats and mirrors are switched off.

There's a row of piano-like keys on the centre of the stylish dash below the touchscreen Credit: Nico Campo

Use this when you need to eke out the range to get to the next recharge, although it would have been helpful if the Tom Tom-based satnav immediately showed the nearest charge stations and their status, and also if the air-con settings were resumed when you switched out of Sherpa mode.

Good equipment

Yes, you did read that right, heated seats and mirrors are rather high end for what Luca de Meo charmingly called “a boutique car for the working man”, but they are the very least of the equipment which comes with the new 500.

As well as style, the third-generation 500 has all the latest safety systems Credit: Nico Campo

Autonomous driving at SAE level 2 is hardly self-driving, but the little Fiat can do that as well as having all the requisite emergency braking, pedestrian and cycle recognition and lane-keeping assistance systems, albeit done with a couple of cameras rather than the more usual camera and radar.

What about charging the battery?

Charging is via a household 3kW supply, or Mode 2 (the cable comes with the car), which takes 15 hours 15 minutes to charge from 0-100 per cent.

Credit: Alessandro Altavilla

The 7.4kW Mode 3 home wall box option (the one sold by Fiat is called Easy Wallbox) will take just under six hours, an 11kW street charger (also Mode 3) takes 4hr 15min and an 85kW DC super-fast charger will give a 0-80 per cent charge in 35 minutes.

The unanswered questions

Promise, we did our job, but the management remained as impassive as the Sphinx.

Will there be a still-cheaper battery-electric Panda on the same base? Is there a future for the third electric Fiat, the clever Centoventi concept, with its swappable battery packs to extend the range? What about Lancia, which currently uses the 500 as a base for its Ypsilon supermini?  

No answer, came the stern reply.

What does the future hold for Fiat's lauded Centoventi concept?

And what about the proposed merger between Fiat Chrysler Auto (FCA) and PSA Peugeot Citroën currently under review by the European anti-trust investigators, who are not expecting to issue their judgement before November this year? Does that mean (as has happened with PSA’s takeover of Opel/Vauxhall), that PSA drivetrains and chassis platforms become the norm for Fiat? And where does that leave the new 500e and indeed Citroën’s own EV city car concept, the Ami One?

All together now; no answer.

Conclusion

Based on a new, lightweight floorpan, the 500e’s excellent 199-mile range gives it an advantage over the immediate opposition. It looks terrific, drives nicely and if it weren’t for the ride quality, we’d love it completely.

Credit: alessandro altavilla

We’re hoping that the smaller wheels and tyres improve the ride, and that the forthcoming cheaper and more sensibly specified models still keep the 42kWh battery pack and that all-important range.

It’s a brave move by Fiat and, as well as being a good-looking city car, this new electric Cinquecento is a car you’d want to use for a lot more than simly pootling around town.

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