Fiat’s car of the future starts with a key.
Not some magic high-tech fob that senses your presence and adjusts the seats, climate control and cupholders to your preferences as you sit in your kitchen thinking about maybe taking the car out for a spin after breakfast, just an old-fashioned key.
That you turn.
It’s the only throwback piece of evidence that the 500e is a conversion job, swapping an all-electric powertrain for the conventional, internal combustion engine-based setups that typically drive its iconic econo-supermini. The packaging of the new system is so well-integrated that you’d think the 500 platform was designed to be battery-powered from the start.
Up front there’s an electric motor good for 111 hp and 147 lb-ft torque that gets its juice from a very flat, 24 killowatt-hour battery pack that fits under the floor and rear seat. The 500e loses a couple of inches of already scarce rear legroom and some cargo space in the process, but front seat passengers are unaffected.
They will notice a few differences, however. Instead of a stick, the single-speed 500e has PRND buttons on the center console, and there’s a very nifty, 7-inch diameter circular digital display in the instrument cluster that takes the place of mechanical gauges. Otherwise, it’s the same retro-inspired design the rest of the Cinquecento lineup gets.
Twist that key, wait for the ding, hit “D” and you’re ready to go.
As with most electric cars, the power is immediate and the 500e steps off the line smartly. Despite the extra 600 pounds that battery pack brings to the party, it’s a hair quicker to 60 mph than a regular 500.
Top speed is electronically restricted to 88 mph, which gets it just over the maximum legal U.S. limit of 85 mph in Texas, while also guaranteeing its ability to travel through time – assuming you have a flux capacitor handy. (No, the Mopar catalog does not have one…yet.) A light motor whine provides an appropriate 21st century soundtrack.
Nimble, mouse-like handling is the 500’s forte, of course, and this model is no different. In fact, it’s arguably better. The ballast of the battery brings the center of gravity down low and improves the car’s front to rear weight distribution. It may be a city car at heart, but it loves a mountain road.
Braking is handled almost exclusively by the electric motor acting as a generator to recapture energy. Above 8 mph, the discs aren’t used at all. They only engage below that speed, or during severe stopping events that require the anti-lock-braking system to engage. The result is a natural, linear pedal feel, unlike many hybrids and electric cars deliver, plus lots of extra juice that adds to the car’s range.
According to the EPA, you can enjoy its charms for up to 87 miles per charge, and get the equivalent of 116 mpg in the process. That range puts it on high end of today’s batch of electric rides, the 208-265 mpg Tesla Model S being the outlier, but at a much loftier price level starting at $69,900.
As for the 500e, it has a sticker price of $32,500, but you won’t ever pay that much. Assuming you have a high enough income and live in California -- which is the only place that it’s being sold in right now, in order for Fiat/Chrysler to meet the state’s minimum requirement for zero-emissions vehicles -- you’ll qualify for $10,000 in state and federal tax credits, and Fiat is throwing a $2,000 rebate on top of that, so call it $20,500. That includes a special TomTom navigation system equipped with several EV-specific features.
Even better for commitment-phobes is a dirt cheap three-year lease deal for $999 down and $199 per month. In either event, Fiat throws in 12 free car rental days from Enterprise annually for three years in case you want to take a long road trip or two. The 500e can be recharged in as little as four hours on a 240-volt fast charger, but that could turn a 174-mile drive into a seven-hour affair.
Sadly, but not for you, Fiat estimates that it is losing $10,000 per car to offer these deals. That’s a ton of money to put on such a small hood, and you definitely get what you don’t pay for. The 500e is an impressive effort in a segment filled with compromise.
Don’t feel bad for Fiat. If it wasn’t selling this car it’d be spending that cash on fines, or to purchase zero emissions credits from other automakers without getting the image sheen the 500e is sure to provide.
With its snazzy style and eco-chic personality, some of that might even rub off on you.
2013 Fiat 500e
Base Price: $32,500
Type: 4 –passenger, 3-door hatchback
Motor: Permanent magnet electric traction
Power: 111 hp, 147 lb-ft torque
Transmission: one-speed automatic
Range: 87 miles
MPGe: 116 combined
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.