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Same body, very different guts: Fiat 500 Turbo and Fiat 500e EV square off

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Gasoline or electricity? Fiat 500 Turbo or 500e electric? With both cars sharing much of the same guts, is the electrified Fiat 500e better than its turbocharged stablemate? Or does it fizzle out when stacked up against the convenience of its gasoline-sipping brother?  After driving each model recently, that’s exactly what I wanted to find out.

Fiat 500e

A quick look at the electrified version of the Fiat 500 – the 500e – doesn’t tell much.

There are some slight cosmetic differences between the 500e and the 500 Turbo but other than that, good luck telling them apart. Depending on your take, that’s either good or bad. Like any other car I’ve driven, the doors swing open the same way, you get in it the same way, with a push of a button the car turns on the same way. Instead of shifting into drive, however, a simple press of the “D” button sends the car along its way. See? Not so scary.

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But the differences are there, and they’re far less superficial than tweaking the car’s casing and swapping out drivetrains. No, the 500e is more than the sum of its parts. It’s one of the first truly convincing EVs and the opportunity to drive one should not be missed.

Whereas most electrics require a great deal of compromise from their drivers because of limited handling, slower overall speed, reduced range, etc., the 500e hustles along, asking only an open mind in return.

My time with the car had me crawling through the congested roads of Los Angeles, neighborhoods occupied by Hollywood’s elite, and zipping along the sunny shores of Malibu. And with each passing environment, the 500e rarely failed to impress.

For starters, it feels heavier than its gasoline counterpart, which of course it is. The weight of its 24 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack adds 640 pounds to be exact and actually helps the 500e handle and feel like a rear-wheel drive car.

Fiat’s diligent engineers gave the 500e a 53/47 front-to-rear weight distribution, making it perfectly suitable for carving up canyons and sweeping through the city. In each environment, the 500e felt planted, pliant, and was pleasure to drive.

Turning into a sharp corner seemed to fling that added weight straight to the car’s caboose, while stepping on the accelerator tickled the tarmac enough to rocket (silently, of course) down the road.

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I can’t overstate how much the added heft of the battery pack helps the 500 handle, especially over rough terrain where the added weight helps make the ride far less jarring than its gasoline counterpart.

Rather than running on dredged-up dino-juice, the 500e is powered by an 83-kilowatt (111 horsepower and 147 lb-ft of torque) electric motor. Because of 500e’s electric nature, mashing on the accelerator provides a heaping helping of torque – no gear changes needed. In place of a throaty growl, a tempered hum emanates from the car’s underbelly. That might sound disappointing to those unfamiliar with EVs, but it isn’t. There’s a strange (albeit inaudible) charm to the 500e’s silent lift off.

At low speeds, the 500e is a real treat, too. However, the journey from 0-30 mph is infinitely more thrilling than the journey from 0-60 (the 500e maxes out at 85 mph). At higher speeds, the 500e’s electric motor doesn’t provide a lot of oomph which is a tad bit disappointing, but the again, this isn’t exactly a highway cruiser.

Now, LA is notorious for traffic, each lane like a clogged artery desperately struggling to open. Knowing this beforehand doesn’t exactly help the situation, but the 500e’s diminutive size coupled with the instant torque on hand made squeezing into that last bit of free space in the lane next to me slightly easier. It’s not a miracle cure-all, but the 500e’s eager handling was enough to stave off frequent fits of traffic tantrums.

Despite its torquey goodness, the 500e doesn’t throw you back like a sardine trapped in a can, although it comes a lot closer to that feeling than you’d think. Instead, the true nature of this modest EV was most enjoyed climbing up Mulholland Drive and railing through Malibu’s curvy canyon roads. People will assume because it’s an EV the 500e was bred purely for the city, but it was just as capable outside of LA’s concrete jungle as it was trapped within it. And my guess is owners will want to free it from the shackles of their urban prison any chance they get.

According to the books, the 500e touts a range of 87 miles with an EPA rating of 122 MPGe in the city, 108 MPGe on the highway, and 116 MPGe combined,

Naturally, my overall range barely suffered driving through LA’s star-studded streets, where hybrids and EVs perform best. But my Fiat-approved route also saw me take to the freeway as well, which managed to siphon off the miles more readily. No surprise there.

That was fine because once back in the city and along the coastal switchbacks the 500e was quick to regain lost miles. A regenerative braking system takes all the energy creating during braking and zaps it back into the onboard battery, adding even more mileage to the battery’s total range. EV drivers will be happy to learn that that 500e’s regenerative braking system isn’t as aggressive as other systems out there. Letting off the accelerator causes only a mild tug back opposed to say the Mitsubishi i’s more forceful jolt. 

Of course the regenerative system didn’t help much on longer, flatter driving surfaces, but was perfect for dipping canyon roads. In the 500e, steep gradients quickly became my best friend, and trying to squeeze out every last bit of generated juice became a Meta game of sorts.

On the inside, Fiat replaced the standard gauges with a more EV-focused cluster. It’s all there to make more sense of what’s going on under the hood; you don’t refuel an EV like you would a gasoline car, therefore you don’t need the exact same information right in front of you.

The 500e lets you know what your remaining battery level is as well as how you’re driving. Because I wanted my time with the car to focus on handling and performance, I tried my best to keep my attention off of the 500e’s 87 mile reserve. For the times I couldn’t place caution to the wind, the driving gauge let me know whether I could afford to keep the pedal to the carpet or needed to ease off a bit.

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I didn’t get to recharge the 500e during my drive time, but Fiat says connecting to a 120-volt Level 1 charger will take about 24 hours on a fully depleted battery while a 240-Volt Level 2 will get the job done in four.

Still, no matter how excellent the local charging set up, the reality is the 500e won’t travel as far as its gasoline counterpart, which is why Chrysler is giving 500e owners up to 12 days a year of free vehicle rentals through Enterprise. Not too shabby.

The 500e is very much an electric car but what made it so compelling to me was how easy it was to forget that.

Fiat 500 Turbo

For my time behind the wheel of the Fiat 500 Turbo I headed up to Oregon, substituting the sun-drenched (and silicone littered) streets of Malibu for the rain-soaked roads of Portland. While two very different locations, the terrain remained very much the same, with city driving and Portland’s West Hills serving as my primary backdrops. Of course, seeing as how the 500 Turbo isn’t restricted by an electric range, I had some leeway to venture out more than I did in the 500e but my primary objective was to experience how it handled and behaved, not how far it could venture away from gas or charging stations.

I wouldn’t go so far as to label Fiat’s foray back into the American market as meteoric, but I can’t find a more suitable way of describing my experience with the 500 Turbo than “exhilarating.”

While the Japanese fiddle with fuel economy, American companies like Ford and GM try to play catch-up (where were you in the 90’s?) and the Germans are busy in their lab coats, trying to strike a balance. Fiat, with its Italian DNA firmly mapped out, knows it needs to play up its style and performance roots to stand a chance in an increasingly competitive space. Oh, and let’s not forget the Koreans.

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While most compact cars are content with getting you from A to B with the same sterility found inside a bottle of Purell, the 500 Turbo is a little different. It feels charged with unleashing the fun-filled side of economic driving while marrying fuel economy and feistiness into one alluring package.

Fun is really the keyword here and the 500 Turbo seems to have an endless supply in its tank. On the road, the 500 Turbo features arcade-game handling. It’s not quite get up with go-karting caliber moves, but its tightly-tuned torsion-beam rear suspension, flexible shock tuning and surprisingly lively electrically assisted power-steering come together to deliver an adrenaline-charged ride.

Because of its size, I figured the 500 Turbo would excel in and around the city – and I’m happy to report it does just that. The 500 is agile with an uncanny ability to squeeze by traffic and squeeze into the tightest of spots.

That said, I also wanted to see how it acquitted itself in a more tasking environment. I wanted to believe the 500 Turbo had all the makings of a four-wheeled rocket, perfectly adept during its daunting 9 to 5 weekday but one that could just as easily tame the winding wilderness far from the glowing city scape.

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Turns out it it’s pretty decent outside of its intended element. While not without its shortcomings – point the wheels over rough terrain and the car’s short wheelbase translates into a rocky ride – the squirrely set up means the 500 Turbo can careen around corners while staying sharp and alert.

At its core, the 500 Turbo is an entertaining car. With all the bells and whistles our autos possess these days, they often feel like an extension of the workplace. But while automotive technology has its place, there are times where the only thing I want to connect to is the road.

That’s where the 500 Turbo delivers.

Jetting into the city in a smaller, more nimble car has its perks. For one, merging into traffic is easy; there is a doggedness that affects larger vehicles, a condition that doesn’t afflict the 500 Turbo. I’m not sure if it’s more the size or scope of the 500 Turbo, but tackling traffic on my drives never got me down. And how often can you say that?

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There’s this innate aura of fun on hand with the 500 Turbo. Maybe it was the neck-snapping jerk I felt every time I dropped down a gear to overtake the car in front of me. Or maybe it was the deceptive snarl of the car’s 1.4-liter, 16-valve MultiAir turbocharged engine producing 135 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque that scooted along the car’s front-wheel drive transmission. Every time I drove the 500 Turbo it just seemed to get better and better.  

Remarkably, Fiat overlooked the option of an automatic transmission for a sole five-speed manual. Now manual transmission cars – and by association drivers that prefer them – are a dwindling species and yet the turbocharged 500 is only available with a five-speed manual; talk about hardcore. Some might cry foul or its Italian equivalent, but the 500 Turbo feels like it was meant to be experienced this way and no other. Well, actually, the addition of a sixth gear would be nice.

Manual transmissions are hardly en vogue these days but there is something to be said when man and machine come together as one, even if it is just to shift gears. That analogue feeling continues to excite time and again, although I’d still take instant torque over do-it-yourself shifting any day. Now if only there was a way to meld the two technologies together…

And the winner is …

If you can’t already tell, my experiences with the 500 Turbo and 500e were both satisfying to say the least. Both cars are excellent in their own right but it’s the 500e that whizzes away the out and out winner.

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What I appreciate most about the 500e is how little I was forced to compromise. Some of you will point to the current limitation placed on EVs regarding range and infrastructure, but that’s not enough of a factor to trump the excellent 500e. And charging spots are popping up all over the place now.

In truth, it’s the 500e’s added weight and driving mechanics that make me want to drive it more. While the steering can feel a little too numb at times, it’s present in both versions so it doesn’t really peg back the 500e in any way. Plus, there is simply something about that instant, linear spool of torque that has me smitten. Swinging it around corners is a blast as well, a feat not as easily accomplished in the 500 Turbo. 

Driving an electric car for the first time isn’t as scary as some people would have you believe. I’d liken it to trying the diet version of your favorite soda: a slightly different taste initially but a taste you’ll barely notice after each subsequent sip.

That pretty much sums up my experience with the Fiat 500e; it’s easily one of the most – if not the most – likable EVs I’ve driven because of how “normal” it feels. In fact, I could sip on its electric goodness all day long and never grow tired of its smooth, crisp, taste.

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