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Fiat has reinvented the ever-popular 500 as a bigger, plusher and electric-only city car for its next generation. Una buona idea?
Steve Cropley Autocar
2 December 2020

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.

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What's it like?

When you first clap eyes on the 500 EV, it’s evident Fiat has done as much as possible to lift the model’s quality image, doubtless to counteract the modern trend towards tiny profit margins for small cars and better emulate the Mini’s ability to justify relatively strong prices. The paint is lustrous, the panel fit and detailing (flush door handles, intricate wheel styles, cute body details, technical light designs) are all impressive.

Equipment is impressive, too, even on the Action, which gets lots of modern gadgetry, including rear parking sensors, 50kW charging capability, keyless ignition, a 7.0in touchscreen, automatic emergency braking and traffic light recognition. Our La Prima adds 85kW charging, LED headlights, elegant 17in alloys, a 10.25in touchscreen, a rear-view camera, rain-sensing wipers, climate control and more.

What Fiat is proudest of is level-two autonomous driving features; the new 500 “will accelerate, brake and stay within its lane autonomously” – a first in a city car. Naturally, there are apps that inform you about the battery state and help you to find charging points on a journey.

When you approach the 500 to drive, its extra size is obvious but not unpleasant. The door is big but the shape is perfectly in proportion, and the car is still considerably shorter than the Ford Fiesta or Renault Clio.

The driving environment is roomy (you sit high) and there’s more room for legs and feet than in the petrol 500. Take a peep at the rear cabin, though, and you will soon see this is no four-metre supermini: accommodation goes from cramped for two to merely tight.

The interior materials are mostly of high quality. The instrument array is still based on the original’s single dial, but the graphics are better organised and much clearer (partly because there’s no need for the former’s confusing concentric tachometer scale). The wide screen dominates the centre of the fascia, but the whole treatment is classier and more modern. A simple row of push-push ancillary switches runs below the screen, and prominently sited below those are the PRND buttons that make this Fiat go. It’s all very satisfying on the eye.

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The seats are better, too. They’re not sporty but there’s now a more conventional relationship between the seat and the steering column, which now adjusts for reach as well as height.

Like most decent electric cars, the 500 zips off the mark with ease and energy, with torque and smoothness of response its keynotes. A whine accompanies progress, but it’s all very refined and, like in most electric cars, the 0-40mph energy belies what seems a fairly routine 0-62mph time. You get the choice of three driving modes – Normal (which replicates conventional driving), Range (a two-pedal set-up with strong regenerative braking) and Sherpa (others would call it Eco), which, if your range meter is showing 160 miles, say, adds another 15-20 by reducing all power consumption and performance.

It’s a thoroughly appealing and easy-to-use powertrain except for the dead-stop braking facility in Range mode, which is a bit more abrupt than most would prefer. As far as we could judge on a mixed-roads 80-mile drive, the offer of 160-200 miles (the latter if you make generous use of Sherpa mode) is realistic.

Given the differences between the electric and petrol 500 models, it’s surprising how similar they are in some ways. The EV’s steering is accurate enough and relatively light but has the same rather artificial feel (others are far better) and, despite the odd effect you would expect the extra body weight to have on ride quality, the new car can seem rather bouncy in some modes. However, it remains quiet over bumps of all kinds, which feeds the occupants’ impression that it’s a refined machine.

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Should I buy one?

What strikes you most powerfully is that the 500 is now in a class of its own. The appeal and the impression of quality are now both outstanding.

The Mini Electric is probably the most obvious competitor, except it isn’t as thoroughly redesigned or as imposing and it can’t get anywhere near the 42kWh 500’s touring range. In short, Fiat’s decision to launch the new 500 only as an EV, while also sticking with a slightly smaller and more conventional earlier model, suddenly looks a lot more logical than it seemed before the car arrived in Britain.

Of course, this fascinating car’s owners will be the true arbiters, and they can’t place orders until next January or collect cars until spring. But the omens look promising.

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Comments
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Add a comment…
Riley 1.5 2 December 2020

Just had a look at the Fiat website, quite fancy the Passion spec level, since the Icon at £19,995 really is steel-wheel, wheel trim poverty spec. Shame that Fiat are slightly vague about pricing, unless I couldn't find what the next-level up actually costs. I suppose I could ask my local dealer, but in Scotland there's only really company that sells Fiat and I don't feel I can take the level of hard sell that their knowing your name usually produces.

Riley 1.5 2 December 2020
Riley 1.5 wrote:

Just had a look at the Fiat website, quite fancy the Passion spec level, since the Icon at £19,995 really is steel-wheel, wheel trim poverty spec. Shame that Fiat are slightly vague about pricing, unless I couldn't find what the next-level up actually costs. I suppose I could ask my local dealer, but in Scotland there's only really company that sells Fiat and I don't feel I can take the level of hard sell that their knowing your name usually produces.

I see Action is the poverty spec version. Getting old is never easy!

Sonic 2 December 2020

Far nicer design than the Mini EV, in every aspect. Great job Fiat! 

vinylnutter 2 December 2020

Might have been a more rounded review if we learned the 500 electric starts at £19995 rather than £10000 more!

TStag 3 December 2020
vinylnutter wrote:

Might have been a more rounded review if we learned the 500 electric starts at £19995 rather than £10000 more!

I agree. This makes it far more interesting as a commuter car for me at least. 

 

MikeeG 3 December 2020

Exactly. It's obvious that Autocar are still trying to make EVs simply look very expensive if they can. 

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