What is it?
The debut of the electric Fiat 500 was always going to seem more poignant than the arrival of a similar-size new-shape electric rival. Not because it was necessarily better but because of the implications that its arrival would hold for the 500 franchise, Fiat’s only truly successful model range, globally speaking.
Since 2007, Fiat has made an impressive sales success of its 3.5-metre-long baby, continuing to sell cars in big numbers more than a decade beyond the original car’s debut and proving conclusively that buyers still heartily approve of a design style that first appeared with the tiny, rear-engined Cinquecento classic 60 years ago.
Still, the announcement in mid-2019 that the next model would be bigger and taller, use an all-new platform and be available only with battery-electric power was quite a shock. What would it mean for total 500 sales? Would serial 500 buyers (of which there were plenty) take to a bulkier version? What about a petrol model: surely Fiat wouldn’t abandon overnight what has overwhelmingly been its most popular form of motive power?
Since then, much detail has emerged. Fiat has reassured buyers that a gently improved version of the familiar 500 will continue, underscoring that by re-engineering it with a new 70bhp three-cylinder mild-hybrid powertrain that has a 12V starter-generator to harvest electricity on the overrun and use it to improve acceleration and fuel efficiency.
Meanwhile, although the electric model is 61mm longer overall, 39mm longer in the wheelbase, 56mm wider and 40mm taller than the renamed Classic petrol version, reassuringly cute photographs and a drive earlier this year in a lightly disguised prototype proved that the distinctive 500 look can indeed be expressed in a new size.
Yet still there were questions, most of which were never going to be answered until we had the chance to see the local pricing and specifications and, above all, to drive the new 500 in the UK’s unique conditions. Thus it suited our purposes that a local launch event planned for rural Oxfordshire had to be relocated for pandemic-related reasons to familiar roads around Fiat’s headquarters in Slough, 25 miles west of London.
The new 500 hatchback comes in four equipment levels – Action, Passion, Icon and La Prima – while the 500 convertible is offered only in the top three. The ragtop premium is £2650 to £3000, depending on the trim; our full-house La Prima model cost £29,995, whereas the soft-top version will set you back £32,995.
Every electric 500 except for the entry-level Action gets a 117bhp permanent-magnet motor to drive the front wheels, with power supplied by a 42kWh battery yielding around 200 miles of range on the WLTP scale. The Action has a 92bhp motor and a 24kWh battery, offering more like 120 miles between charges, but its official 0-62mph acceleration time of 9.0sec is identical to that of more powerful versions, evidently because of their extra battery weight.
The full-power 500 La Prima weighs close to 1365kg, a clear 100kg more than the 24kWh version and 350-360kg more than the smaller, petrol-engined originals.