To this grizzled New Yorker, Los Angeles is the automotive land of milk and honey. Free from the ravages of potholes and rust that claims every decade-old daily driver in the Northeast, it’s a sun-bleached paradise where you can stroll down a sidewalk lined with palm trees and pass an Aston Martin Vanquish, a ’54 Chevy Stepside, and a first-generation Honda Civic CVCC all in a single block.
It’s also the land of glitz and glamor, a place where people come from all over the world to be starstruck. Celebrities of all stripes are here, those larger-than-life figures that only seem to exist in the media, not out in the real world. I liked to think that I was immune from getting starstruck, but on my first day in Los Angeles, I was stopped dead in my tracks, and instantly transformed into your typical gawking out-of-town tourist.
See, I saw a Fiat 500e in person. Two of them, actually. Parked in a row on Sunset Boulevard, both resplendent in the “Arancio Electtrico” (read: Electric Orange) paint that they usually wear in advertisements and road tests. Fiat’s electric version of its popular 500 city car has been around since 2013, but its availability in California and Oregon only have turned the diminutive EV into an automotive unicorn for people who live in the other 48 states.
So imagine my surprise a week later when after a lucky chain of events, a Ford F-350 with a shockingly small trailer pulled up in front of where I was staying and left behind a brand new, fully charged 500e resplendent in “Granito Lucente” (read: Granite Crystal) and left me with it for two days.
As soon as the truck pulled away, I jumped in the car, turned the key (yes, it still has one of those) in the ignition, and… nothing. I scanned the dash for a start button, tried the key a few more times, but still, nothing. Feeling like an idiot, and thankful that there weren’t many people out on a Monday at 11 a.m., I pulled out the manual, found that once the ignition is cranked, the car will display a subtle “Ready” message in the center of the speedometer in about size-10 font. The last EV I drove was a Tesla P85 – a car that lets you know when it’s on – so I wasn’t prepared for the subtle approach taken by the 500e.
From there, though, the 500e was everything you’d want in a subcompact EV: It’s quick, stylish, and it feels special while staying familiar. Like its gas-powered siblings, the 500e is a shockingly small car, which I realized after I squeezed into a parking spot that a Nissan Versa had given up on a few moments before. Despite an EPA-rated range of 87 miles per charge, the car’s all-digital readout told me I had a cushy 101 mile range to work with, so I decided to head up to Griffith Park, where I could put the car through its paces in the Hollywood hills.
Almost instantly, the car’s nicely-weighted steering and strong handling had me grinning childishly. The sheer madness of chirping the tires under regular acceleration got me every time, and the 500e’s 147 pound-feet of torque are enough to push you back into your seat as if you were accelerating twice as hard. It took to the twists and hairpin turns of Griffith Park like a fish to water; even without breaking 30 on the hills, the car was an absolute joy, leaving me feeling completely connected the road, albeit silently.
Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last, because by the time I got up to the observatory a mere seven miles later, I was shocked to see that my range had plummeted from 101 miles to less than 70. The Fiat’s regenerative braking system came into play as I coasted down the hills, trying to recoup some lost range. The system takes a few minutes to get used to, as its strong resistance along with the tall car’s body roll contributed to some noticeable dipping before I got the hang of it. Luckily, I regained about 15 miles of range going down hill to play with.
The car’s instant torque and responsive breaking came in handy in L.A.’s notorious traffic. Rush hour was madness as expected, with shifting lanes, and traffic dipping from 70 to about 25 miles per hour with little warning. But the Fiat acquitted itself well, and the regenerative braking system even added a few more miles to my range.
Despite having a well-optioned car, with a sunroof, smoked headlights, and special wheels, the car’s interior was by far its weakest point, with acres of hard, shiny black plastic covering the dash and doors, the delicate feel of the gear selector buttons, and an upright backseat that had passengers complaining after just a few minutes on the road. Compared to similarly-priced rivals like the Nissan Leaf and the Volkswagen e-Golf, the 500e’s interior may make it difficult to justify its $34,245 price.
After several hours of driving the 500e, I wanted to see how easy it would be to charge in EV-friendly Los Angeles. While the car came with its own plug-in charger, I didn’t have direct access to an external outlet, and since the manual explicitly says not to use an extension cord, that option was out the window. I checked the Fiat website, and found six charging stations within a 10 mile radius, with the closest being in a parking garage in downtown. I plugged the car in with a 53% charge, and went to find a coffee shop to kill time.
Two hours later, the shop had closed, and the car had only charged to 75%. While the cost of electricity cost less than four dollars, I was whacked with an additional $18 after-hour parking fee just for using the garage.
While this was by no means the car’s fault, it drove home just how tenuous the infrastructure still is for EVs. The 500e would be perfect for a commuter who rarely leaves the city, especially one who has a garage and access to outlets. But for true city living, where the car will be parked on-street most of the time, the lack of cheap, accessible charging stations – especially in progressive Los Angeles – serves to show that the EV infrastructure still isn’t quite ready for prime time.
As an EV, I would say the Fiat 500e is very good. It behaves like a gasoline-powered car in all the ways you’d want it to, while giving impressive amounts of torque and acceleration that the gas-powered models don’t (except for maybe the Abarth). As a daily driver though, its limited range, disappointing interior, and stiff competition would make it a tough sell, even after the $7,500 federal and $2,500 California EV credits bring the price down to the mid-$20,000 range. As a New Yorker driving one of the West Coast’s electric unicorns, I was pleasantly surprised by the 500e. But I can also say that range anxiety is very real, and unless you’ve got the infrastructure already in place for an EV, it’s a tough sell no matter how big the tax credits are.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS