The San Francisco Bay Area is a great place for interesting junkyard finds, daily-driven classic Italian cars, and getting around in an electric-powered vehicle. My last couple of Bay Area Race Organizer Reviews have been big and powerful luxury sedans, so it seemed only proper that I get a brightly-colored little machine that fits in marginal San Francisco parking spots and feeds on electrons instead of hydrocarbons.
The 500e is available in any of seven exterior colors, but there's no point in messing around with anything other than the screaming Arancio Elettrico. You're making a statement here (and making it easier for distracted drivers in '89 Tauruses running on three space-saver spares to see you).
You have two choices for the interior colors: black with shrieking orange accents or white with shrieking orange accents. I cracked up laughing when I first laid eyes on this orange-and-white spectacle, but after the first day I came to love it. On the second day, I was wishing that Fiat had added banks of LEDs strobing to the music on the sound system, and maybe a rotating disco ball with orange laser spots.
Like just about all electric cars, Fiat's engineers won't let the driver dump full thrust out of the motor from a dead stop— some safety-first nonsense about shearing axle shafts with all that instant zero-rpm torque. That means you can't launch very hard from traffic signals, but once the 500e gets rolling at about 10 mph it will beat just about anything on the street. I don't know what the numbers are, but I'll bet that few dinosaur-juice-burning cars can match the 500e in a 10-40 mph uphill race. Coupled with its nimbleness, good visibility, and tiny size, this makes the 500e possibly the ideal San Francisco car; you can whip it around in an instant U-turn, drag-race all competitors to a rare open parking spot, and squeeze it into the space before your opponents finish the second part of their three-point turn. Sure, you'll be experiencing screaming tires and squirrely torque-steer during this process, and some drunk will back an Econoline loaded with four tons of waterlogged particle-board into your car after you walk away, but you'll get that spot!
I didn't have an actual 24 Hours of LeMons race to organize on this trip, but there were important race-organization meetings to be had. Here's LeMons Assistant Perp Nick Pon and LeMons Supreme Court Justice Shawn Rodgers in the 500e, on our way to a working lunch at Pretty Lady Diner in West Oakland. That's right, a six-footer in the back seat and a burly tank driver in the front; they weren't exactly stretching out, but they fit well enough.
Now we need to get to the drawbacks of this car. The main one is that the range-o-meter seems disconnected from reality; at one point, I started with 108 miles of range displayed, drove 21 miles from Alameda to the Richmond District in San Francisco (in cool 55-degree weather, with the HVAC completely shut down), and saw the range drop to 51 miles. Yes, I was hauling pretty well in the fast lane on the freeways and leadfooting it up steep hills, but something still seemed off here. My guess is that you'd get a sense of real-world range after owning the car for a while and just go by the percentage-of-charge indicator instead of the range-o-meter, but I didn't have the 500e long enough to get the necessary experience.
It's cheaply made and everything feels flimsy, the audio system choked on a random MP3 on my USB drive and locked up every 20 minutes or so, but that's about the extent of the negatives for this car. It makes a lot of sense in an urban setting.
Running on electricity means that the car is exactly as green as the source of your power; if that power comes from coal or burning tires or whale oil, you can't pat yourself on the back for saving the planet. If you've got solar panels on your roof and charge your 500e that way, you will have every right to look down your nose at those polluting Prius owners and their energy-hog cars.
At $33,595 as-tested, this car costs quite a bit more than the regular benzina-powered 500. It's also more fun to drive… but my penny-pinching instincts would likely lead me to get the much cheaper, weird-looking-but-good-driving Mitsubishi i-MiEV for my EV daily-driver needs. Still, the 500e makes real-world sense.
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