Fiat 500 electric prototype review

There are still a few niggles to be worked out, but the electric Fiat 500 has all the makings of a superb city car, just like its predecessors

Fiat 500 electric
£26,995 - £29,000
Electric

Pros

  • Cute looks
  • Luxurious interior
  • Decent driving range

Cons

  • Steering too light
  • Expensive at launch
  • Regen brakes too strong
Car type Electric range Wallbox charge time Rapid charge time
Electric 199 miles 6hrs (0-100%, 7.4kW) 35mins (10-80%, 85kW)

The Fiat 500 is joining fellow city cars like the Smart EQ ForTwo, SEAT Mii Electric and Skoda Citigo-e iV in making the transition to an electric-only model. But whereas those three were formerly also available with combustion engines, this is a brand-new 500, designed from the ground up to be electric-only.

Granted, it doesn't look like that from the outside, but with the previous 500 having become such a style icon (and strong seller, despite its advancing years), Fiat has wisely decided not to mess with the looks too much. At the same time, it has brought the car thoroughly up to date under the metal.

We headed to Fiat's hometown of Turin in Italy to drive an early prototype of the car, which Fiat hopes will be the ideal companion of the 21st century's strongly eco-aware, but still also fashion-conscious, urban dwellers. Seen up close, it's not a carbon copy of its predecessor, even if the silhouette is instantly familiar.

It’s actually about 60mm longer and wider than the old car, and up front, there's an elegant line splitting the LED headlights in two. The switch to electric power also allows a nod to the classic 500's smooth front end, as the rear-engined original didn't need a grille at the front either.

The elegant design continues inside, with a slim two-spoke steering wheel, a circular instrument pod containing a seven-inch digital display, plus a larger 10.25-inch infotainment screen. The latter makes another nod to the 500's past, as it sits atop the centre of the dashboard, where the rear-view mirror was mounted in the 1960s original.

Our first test drive was of the cabriolet version (priced at £29,000 after the government grant in swanky 'La Prima' launch trim), but there'll also be a normal hatchback, costing about £2,000 less in the same spec. A less lavish entry-level version costing in the region of £21,000 is a distinct possibility; this would give the Fiat a trump card to play against the shorter-range Honda e and MINI Electric in the chic electric city-car battle.

Thankfully, the driving experience has improved dramatically over the old car's; you now feel like you're sitting 'in' rather than 'on' the car. The first thing you notice when pulling away, however, is that Fiat has decided not to give the 500 electric a dull 'spaceship' drone for its pedestrian warning noise; instead it's a version of Nino Rota's 'Amarcord' melody. 

That sense of fun continues as you put some miles on the car; thanks to a 115bhp electric motor making 220Nm peak torque, acceleration is eager in 'Normal' mode, which is designed to feel close to the performance and behaviour of a petrol-engined car and gives a reasonable 0-62mph time of nine seconds.

There are also modes designed to help make the car as efficient as possible: 'Range' ensures you get the most out of the battery by strengthening the regenerative braking considerably (possibly too much, especially for those not used to electric cars), while 'Sherpa' is for when you really need to squeeze out maximum range – it turns off the climate control and restricts the power of the electric motor.

The steering is light, which is a boon around town, but we felt it a bit too light for confident driving on more open roads. This and the regenerative braking issue may well have been solved by the time we drive a fully production-ready example of the car, though.

Ride quality on our test model's 17-inch wheels was a touch too firm for most tastes, but this reflects the La Prima trim level – other versions are likely to get more comfortable 16-inch rims. Elsewhere, the point-and-squirt power from the drivetrain and a tight turning circle make the 500 perfectly suited to city driving, although the convertible version does suffer from poor rear visibility when the roof is down.

A 42kWh battery pack translates to a claimed range of just under 200 miles in 'mixed' driving conditions, although Fiat reckons 250 is easily possible if you're just running around town, allowing the regenerative brakes to recover lots of lost energy before sending it back to the battery. Maximum charging speed from a public point is 85kW, allowing for an 80% charge in little more than half an hour. A home charger will top up the car fully overnight.

This third-generation 500 has more space up front than its predecessor, thanks to being wider and offering more headroom. The latest Fiat UConnect infotainment system works well, too, offering full Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity. Good news for front-seat occupants, then, but it's still a tight squeeze for anyone bigger than a toddler in the back and the boot remains very small, at just 185 litres.

But as a car for city-based young people, or a second vehicle for a suburban family, the 500 electric come close to ticking all the boxes.