The brilliant city-car madness of the new Fiat 500!
Fiat-Chrysler Group (FCA) may be in a parlous position at present, with Gallic PSA Group lingering like a vulture awaiting its next meal, but Iain Robertson has never underplayed its ability to turn on the charm, most especially with its landmark 500.
For many years, Fiat held the European sub-compact crown, as a direct result of Sr Dante Giacosa’s guiding and styling hands. With the original 500 model of the mid-1950s, he perfected the city-car and its perpetually darting, ever sunny, dolce vita convenience. He passed away in 1996, at the ripe old age of 91 years but left a legacy of uncorruptible genius that was every bit as great as that of Sir Alex Issigonis (Mini). Giacosa’s stellar automotive achievements inspired the Japanese ‘kei-class’ of city-cars and, while Suzuki may have snaffled the crown for a few years, even a younger generation of vehicle buyers remains aware of the Fiat legacy, even if they cannot recall the great man’s name…although today’s 500 ought to be classified as 1000, with deference to its almost twice-as-large dimensions.
There is no denying the cutesy stance of the current 500. As Fiat’s equivalent of the BMW Mini, itself a bloated reiteration of the original, the Italian model can boast more significant iconographic detailing, even though it has become front-engined/front-wheel driven, a significant departure from the rear-engined/rear-wheel driven original. Cheerful paint finishes, neat interior detailing and a choice of roll-top, or tin-top bodywork, with inimitable flourishes of Latin style and the breathed-on performance benefits of Abarth-ness, have kept 500 buoyant and given it a strong international presence.
Yet, fast becoming a one-model-brand, Fiat has been forced into withdrawing from several international markets (notably North America) and consolidating its model offerings in others, as it pursues a profitable survival management proposition. For instance, the slow selling Mazda MX-5 based 124 Roadster and its Abarth derivatives are no longer sold in the UK. The styling nuances introduced on the new 500e, which, as its subtext suggests, is an all-electric model, are sure to appear on future 500s: redesigned tail-lamps, a new ‘clamshell’ bonnet and clever repositioning of the headlamps, with new ‘eyebrow’ daylight running lamps but, more importantly on what is a strictly ‘convertible’ Prima version (at this stage), an interior redesign that provides better space utilisation.
In typical Fiat fashion, three distinctive one-offs have also been created that are so madly and badly formatted that you might think all logic has finally departed its design department…do not worry, it has not! I am concentrating on them, for the moment, rather than the electric drivetrain of the new 500e and its ever-so-succinct new badging (at which Fiat has always been inventive and ingenious), because Fiat sells as much by catwalk appeal, as city-car appositeness.
The three design houses represented are as Italian, yet international, as Parmesan cheese and wearing sunglasses at night-time…Giorgio Armani, Bvlgari and Kartell. The most colourfully expressive Bvlgari version (also given a B.500 ‘Mai Troppo’…Never Too Much…specific model name), takes dashboard weirdness onto another confusing, probably unsafe, yet astonishing plane. A similar colourway is carried onto the seat trim with a money-no-object frivolity. I love its boisterousness. Neither the Armani, nor Kartell alternatives are as wild. Yet, the Armani logo lends itself to the automotive arthouse scene with an unexpected ease, the edginess of Kartell providing a more naturalistic view of the designer environment. Both are lovely and it is sad that all three are strict one-offs to be auctioned for charity. I can only hope that a small run of Limited Editions may result in due course.
In the meantime, the ‘standard’ Fiat interior benefits from FIAT logo-embossed non-leather seat trim, which fits more roundly with an eco-stance, even though it is impressed by commercial happenstance. A completely new electrified platform features a 42kWh lithium-ion battery pack and an on-board 85kW fast-charge system. A practical side benefit lies in its 5-minute plug-in facility that provides up to 30 miles of get-you-home power, which is an industry first. A more intense, 35-minutes fast-charge will provide up to 80% maximum capacity, although plugging into a specific, 3kW (upgradable to 7.4kW) Easy Wallbox overnight will provide full charge and just under 200 miles of range.
Developing a total of 87kW, the 500e has a self-limited top speed of 93mph (come on…it’s more than enough!) and the ability to zip from 0-60mph in 8.7s. Three driving modes are selectable: Normal, Range and Sherpa. The latter setting is also the ultra-frugal one, lowering the maximum speed to just 50mph, switching off both the air-con and the heated front seats, as a means to eke out extra miles, as dictated by a journey plumbed into the sat-nav system. As a means to divert attention away from ‘range anxiety’, it is a thoughtful method. On the other hands, Normal ensures that the 500e feels almost the same as a conventional 500, while Range introduces a ‘one-pedal’ function, by which brake energy recovery is employed more aggressively to reduce a driver’s reliance on the left-hand foot pedal (brake), apart from coming to a grinding halt.
For the first time in the city-car category, the 500e is packed with ADAS and Level 2 autonomous driving potential. As such, cameras and sensors are deployed in built-up areas, with the primary intention of providing total driver/occupant safety and convenience. A 10.25-inch touchscreen provides access to all systems, connectivity and electronic features.
However, there is a hefty price to pay for the 500e in its present convertible form and Fiat dealers are taking orders based on a £29,000 (including the £3,500 government grant, which would list the car at £32,500!) price tag. If you are desperate to jump onto the BEV-bandwagon, this is surely a stylish way to do so but it is flaming expensive. It is anticipated that deliveries will commence later this year, at an unconfirmed date.
Conclusion: Cute, characterful and costly, the Fiat 500e is the brand’s fist dip into electrified waters, which might be as cosy as the exercise infers. To be frank, I cannot see a particularly rapid uptake rate of 500e models but it is encouraging that Fiat is in the game.