When Biker Chicks Drive Cars
Fiat cut me loose on the streets of LA in a 2016 500e to see if it could be as fun around town as it is on the track. I’ve driven both manual & automatic 500s, and a broad range of other electric cars. None of them as fun as the Fiat 500e. And it’s not just one biker chick saying this, plenty of car guys agree too. Charged magazine has the most comprehensive story on the 500e here. Motorcyclists in California (and most of the world) are spoiled. We never have to sit patiently in traffic, we just “get in where we fit in.” I wanted to see if the Fiat was fun enough to enjoy without being able to lanesplit. I managed to squeeze it into some pretty tight spaces, making it fairly exciting.
But of course Fiat doesn’t want you to know how much fun it is. They’re only supplying them to California and Oregon residents because they have to in order to sell their other vehicles here. They claimed in 2014 to be losing $14,000 on each 500e sold. Which is odd, considering that electric motors are much cheaper to build than gas engines, and batteries are getting cheaper every day. And building electric cars is certainly cheaper than being sued for lying about “clean” diesel. Perhaps they’re accounting for future lost income in the repair bay, where dealers make the big bucks. While auto execs think Fool Cell infrastructure will magically appear and render the ‘ol 110v outlet obsolete, battery EVs continue growing in popularity, both with drivers and governments alike.
Yes, the 500e has a J1772 outlet, but also a 110v adapter neatly tucked away under the micro trunk. I could’ve used the public charging station at the park 1/10th of a mile from home, but it was easier to just use the 110v adapter each night. Fiat USA told me that many customers charge at the office, as more offices have charging, even though California apartment buildings and condominiums are required to allow residents to charge in their on-site parking. While Tesla owners are likely to own their home and garage, 500e owners are more likely to be apartment dwellers.
Most of the days I had the car, I traveled about 50 miles around LA, mostly on surface streets (freeways are usually the slower route) and usually plugged in with about 50% remaining at the end of the day. The manual recommends not using an extension cord, but also says the 110v adapter will shut off if it has any problems. So I plugged it into the same extension cord I normally use to charge my Zero FX. The rain and the extension cord never gave me problems, but the fuse on the outlet I used couldn’t handle the car, the XBOX, lights, and a space heater all at once. It was easy enough to unplug the car while warming up the bedroom.
Testing the Limits of Range and Traction
Fiat had originally offered buyers free car rentals for longer trips, but cancelled this program because nobody used it — because range anxiety is a false fear that keeps the oil industry chugging along. Los Angeles had the worst rainstorm ever during the week I had this car, so I was able to test the limits of traction in water, just as I had on their dry autocross course back in 2013*. The low center of gravity (CoG) and short wheel base make cornering a delight.
The CoG is lower than on the gas 500 because of the battery placement. Many features developed for the 500e have been adopted for the gas 500 as well. This is the second quietest car I’ve ever been in, after the Tesla S. Riding in a Prius after driving this, I thought perhaps the owner had off-road tires on the Prius — it was so loud. The 500e also has improved aerodynamics, again adopted by the gas 500. But one of the best features of the 500e is how easy it is to get the tires to squeal. Sound effects always make a stunt more exciting, even when it’s just launching off a green light fast enough to elicit giggles. Here’s a video of a typical morning commute to downtown LA.
On Sunday, during the biggest rainstorm LA has ever seen, I took my boyfriend for a spin up Angeles Crest Highway, to see how far we could go before we’d have to turn around. There are no Level 2 chargers up there, so I had to err on the side of caution. We also had the heater and heated seats going, which can reduce range by about 10%. With 36% remaining after climbing roughly 3500 ft over 18 miles, as fast as I dared in the rain, I turned the car around and we made our way back down the hill. I’m already missing how easy it is to do U-turns in this car.
We spent enough time stuck behind (drafting?) a slow-moving truck that the range increased. We even gained a couple miles range in the 22-mile trip home, thanks to Fiat’s exceptionally accurate range estimator. Fiat designed it to analyze both your 100 mile average and the average of your last 10 miles. When you’ve got a full charge, it mainly relies on your 100 mile average, but as the range decreases, the predictor relies more on your past 10 miles. To let you know if you’re on the right track, it’s also got up & down arrows next to the range number. Up means you might be doing better than estimated, down means your mileage may be worse than estimated. In fact, I felt so optimistic about the range, we made a detour to the best donut shop in LA and still got home with 11% to spare. It’s always a bummer when that happens and you realize you could’ve been less cautious.
As you can see, I drove cautiously on the Crest, as I’d already discovered just how mediocre the tires were in the rain, and didn’t care to find out how well the car tumbles down a cliff. I drove with traction control on most of the time, but played around with it off on a dry day to see what that was like. It was also fun. Here’s a short video of my favorite rainy day activity:
So Much Bang For The Buck
After a week in the 500e, I would still take this over any other car if I couldn’t ride a motorcycle. Even if I had Tesla money, I’d have a 500e for city driving because it’s easier to squeeze into tight spaces. They’re insanely cheap to lease, and relatively cheap to buy as well. Although Fiat Chrysler won’t disclose 500e sales, Fiat US sales are 24% higher than they were last January. This 2013 article matches the lease pricing a dealer quoted me for the 2017 500e.
The only things I didn’t like about the car were:
1) The stereo forced me to listen to radio every time I turned it on, instead of silence while it connected with my phone. Sure, Sirius radio is comprehensive, but I’d rather listen to my Tidal playlists, thanks.
2) The best thing about the 500e is also a problem in America. It’s small. It’s cute. A little girl in her pink toy car/stroller pointed as I passed, while the burly fireman I gushed about the car to told me his ego wouldn’t fit into it. This was after I told him it’s not too small for someone of his stature. Los Angeles is home to some of the most aggressive drivers in the world. Self included. As a motorcyclist, I’ve noticed that size definitely matters. The more threatening your vehicle looks, the more likely people are to respect your right-of-way or let you cut in front of them. This is why so many people drive SUVs here. So, in the Fiat, I did notice that I got less respect from drivers than I do in my old 4Runner. But I can zip around obstacles a lot more easily in the Fiat, which more than makes up for the lack of size. And I’m sure Kenny Scharf could make it look more threatening.
*In 2013 I drove a Fiat 500e on an autocross course they’d set up at Refuel. It was absolutely the most fun I’d ever had on 4 wheels. I knew if I ever had to drive a car, it would be a 500e. Motorcycles & scooters have been my primary form of transport since 1985. I claw my way through LA traffic every day, wondering why so many people let fear rule their lives. After all, bones heal. Last month I broke my wrist because a driver didn’t see me coming. The most painful part of this was driving my gas-powered SUV (I actually use it to haul bikes) around LA in these dark times. Which is why this review is happening now.