Lessons From Fiat’s 16,000 Recalled Electric Vehicles

Fiat 500e. Fiat's 16,000 recalled electric vehicles offer a helpful lesson.
Fiat’s 16,000 recalled electric vehicles offer a helpful lesson. | Source: Fiat

We know electric vehicles are complex and — like all cars — will have issues in their first years of production. Hell, even Teslas costing around $130,000 have big problems. We also know that Fiat-Chrysler recalls are a dime per 15 dozen. Anyone with internet access knows that.

So when Fiat announced it would recall over 16,000 models of its 500e plug-in EV, the usual stuff didn’t concern us. The surprise was Fiat sold 16,000 units of its pure electric car in the first place — something General Motors, Ford, and Volkswagen have not done in America. What is it about the little Italian EV that got so many buyers out West, and why are the world’s top automakers so far behind?

First, we’ll take a look at the sales totals of the 500e (per InsideEVs) and the comparable models, along with the dates they debuted:

  • Fiat 500e (July 2013): 15,376
  • Ford Focus Electric (May 2012): 6,356
  • Volkswagen e-Golf (October 2014): 5,796
  • Chevy Spark EV (June 2013): 5,733

Both Chevy and Ford electric models got the jump on the 500e in the marketplace, while the e-Golf was a late arrival. Yet none has reached half the sales total of Fiat’s EV, and 500e peaked in its third year (2015) when it notched 6,194 sales. Unlike the other three, the 500e has been limited exclusively to California and Oregon, so its “compliance car” status hasn’t been an issue.

Fiat 500e pictured in San Francisco.
Fiat 500e sold 6,194 units in 2015. | Source: Fiat

A compliance car that sells

We are forced to conclude what will be obvious to many — that Fiat built an EV with appeal to several thousand people on the West Coast every year and delivered enough inventory to dealers that it kept the momentum going for years. Neither Ford, GM, nor Volkswagen have matched that commitment. For the big Detroit manufacturers, plug-in hybrids like the Fusion Energi and Chevy Volt were doing the company’s heavy lifting in zero-emissions vehicles compliance.

The Chrysler Group, historically the worst major automaker for overall fuel economy, obviously needs a pure electric model to boost the poor miles-per-gallon average among its vehicle lineup and avoid future penalties from regulators. Sergio Marchionne made it clear his company was only selling Fiat EVs to satisfy regulators, and he hoped consumers would not buy one more than FCA needed to comply with CARB guidelines. (Score one for government officials there.)

automaker fuel economy chart
Source: Consumer Federation of America

After hearing so much about GM’s expanded market for the Spark EV last year, sales have been worse in 2016. The Korean-made electric mini car had solid reviews and is affordable enough to appeal to Americans, but the inventory never arrived. Ford Focus Electric, though challenged by limited range (76 miles), also had its share of fans, though it never made it beyond a compliance-level audience.

Volkswagen, which has had success with e-Golf abroad, joined the Detroit delegation by focusing on cars that were easier to sell in America, and the list included the now-maligned diesel models. None of these top-five manufacturers put many resources into marketing their electric models, which was most glaring when the first Focus Electric ad appeared in 2015, the time when the car had officially lost its raison d’etre.

Chevy Spark EV, GM
Sales of the Chevy Spark EV have slowed in 2016. | Source: General Motors

Abandoning the electrics

Around the same time, Chevy was marketing its new Volt as a car that would keep you from the range anxiety experienced in cars like… well, like the Spark EV it was touting as a star of the segment. Volkswagen had existential issues on its plate with Dieselgate in the air, so concerns about the e-Golf’s slow 2016 likely mattered little to the German automaker. (E-Golf’s 86 sales in March put it in 18th place on the U.S. plug-in charts.)

So at a time when consumers were becoming more aware of the EV segment, three of the world’s biggest automakers managed to sell just 8,443 electric cars in 2015. Meanwhile, sales were exploding in China and Europe, with manufacturers like BYD figuring out how to build and move their models in high volumes. We wonder how the U.S. data would look without the economy standards automakers have fought to weaken.

Americans are more than happy to buy pure electric cars; all these automotive giants have to do is build them, stock them in dealerships, and tell people they are available. It’s what Fiat did with the 500e, whether pushed by regulators or not. Bummer about the latest software recall, but at least they have those 16,000 cars on the road in the first place. Maybe U.S. regulators aren’t doing enough after all.

Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY