1. The Little Things Matter. A Lot.
Although the Fiat 500e closely resembles the gasoline-powered version, the designers and engineers took the original into the wind tunnel at the Chrysler Auburn Hills facility. The wind tunnel features a 12-blade, 26-ft diameter fan that is powered by a 4,730-hp electric motor (of course) that is capable of generating wind speeds up to 150 mph. As a result of the testing, modifications made to the 500 to make it a 500e included sealing the front fascia and optimizing its overall design; providing flush-profile 15-in. wheels; redesigning the mirror caps; putting belly pans on the underside of the vehicle; redesigning the rear fascia to reduce drag; integrating a spoiler on the lift-gate. This brings the coefficient of drag down to 0.311 compared with the 0.359 Cd of the 500 Lounge model. From a purely aesthetic point of view, Nick Malachowski, lead designer for the 500e, points to small circular dimples and holes that adorn the body panels and interior surfaces. He said that when he approached the car, he did so knowing that the EV market is new and that the vocabulary for an EV should be different than the one used for cars with internal combustion engines. So rather than looking at other cars, he looked at things like watches and furniture for inspiration. And even works of 20th century modern art: the dot pattern, Malachowski says, are also a reference to the works of Roy Lichtenstein.
2. More Than a Swap.
Although the Fiat 500e generally appears to be a 500 with the powertrain replaced by an 83-kW electric drive motor and the gas tank by a 24-kWh lithium ion battery with a liquid and cooled thermal-management system, this wasn’t a case of taking a car off the line and saying, “This one will be an EV.” (Speaking of the line: Fiat 500s are manufactured at the Toluca Assembly Plant in Mexico, along with the Dodge Journey. To prepare for the build of the 500, extensive changes were made in the plant, ranging from new torque tooling to 110 new dies, from five new automated closure lines to a fully automated PVC sealant application system.) As Brett Giem, 500e chief engineer points out, the battery pack, which is packaged under the floor, midship and slightly aft so as to provide a weight distribution of 53/47 (the gasoline-powered 500: 64/36), weighs 600 lb. The 500 has a gas tank that holds 10.5 gallons, which is a liquid weight of 87.63 lb. Consequently, they had to develop a new lower-body structure to accommodate and protect the battery, which led to a 10% improvement in bending stiffness. Also, they had to redesign the suspension. Spring rates are increased, and there is unique front-strut and rear shock tuning.
3. What Happens When You Don’t Have a 1.4-liter Inline 4.
The 83-kW permanent-magnet, three-phase synchronous drive motor provides 147 lb-ft of torque. That’s available from start. To put that into context, the Fiat 500 Abarth and 500c Abarth have a 160-hp 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that provides 170 lb-ft of torque—at from 2,500 to 5,500 rpm. Not from the start. The 500e is peppy. And quiet because you don’t have the engine noise in the background. So the engineers had to address cabin noise in a big way. They added additional mastic patches on the floor, and an additional 8-mm acoustic pad to the rear floor. They installed a new carpet mass layer. They added sound-deadening material in the rear quarter body cavity, and acoustic pads to the wheelhouse liners. They put a new gasket between the mirror flag and the door. New noise absorption pads are placed in the front doors. There’s new acoustic windshield glass and improved door glass belt and channel sealing. There are new seals for the door and A-pillar, and new upper channel door foam. There’s even a new antenna.
4. Knowing How You’re Doing.
The 500e has a 108 MPGe rating and an estimated combined 87 miles of city/highway driving. But, of course, drivers want to know that they have a sufficient amount of charge to get where they are going. So right in the center of the instrument cluster is a 7-in. thin-film transistor display that provides information regarding the driving range and the state of charge of the vehicle. There is no “eco” button on the vehicle; Matt Davis, head of Fiat Brand product marketing, says they didn’t want to “sacrifice the brand image,” which is about fun more than frugality. The “eco” on the right side of the gauge is an indicator of whether power is being used or a change is being gained through regenerative braking. Also providing information about where one can go is the TomTom navigation system that shows the vehicle range as well as charging stations within the travel area.
5. Yes, There’s an App For That.
The 500e has a built-in 3G modem and the car comes with three years of wireless connectivity. Which means that when the 500e smartphone app is downloaded, real-time vehicle information can be accessed. Screens like the instrument cluster can be called up. There is charge-status updates if the vehicle is being charged. There is the ability to schedule charge time to coincide with periods when electricity costs are lowest. Drivers can pre-condition the vehicle environment: while the car is plugged in it is possible to turn on the HVAC system so that the temperature is comfortable and the energy used to make it so doesn’t come from the battery.