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Prototype drive: Flat 500e La Prima


02 Sep 2020

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Ford’s Model T, Volkswagen’s Beetle, BMC’s Mini and Fiat’s Cinquecento are cars which changed mass motoring for ever. Fiat is rather hoping that this, the third-generation Cinquecento (500) will be doing the same.

With endorsement from Leonardo Di Caprio, Bulgaria, Armani and Kartell (no, I don’t know, either), the latest version of Dante Giacosa’s 1957 original city car, has gone entirely electric and its manufacturing is returning to Turin, albeit three miles away from the famous Lingotto plant, where it was originally built (the one with the roof-top test track used in the 1969 movie The Italian Job) and to the massive and largely empty Mirafiori plant to be built alongside (irony of irony) Maserati’s luxury SUV, the Levante.

Well, that’s the PR story, although the truth is that the petrol Mark II 500 model, will be continue to be built at the company’s Tychy plant in Poland and sold alongside the all-new electric 500 for as long as there is demand. This, however, is the future, the all-new battery electric 500 with an ‘e’ incorporated in the logo – it shares just four per cent of its parts with the petrol Mark II model. And it is set to shake up the city-car electric market, too, bringing unprecedented range and keen pricing, along with an injection of style.

The big 42kWh, 290kg battery sits under the rear floor and seats, with the front-drive motor and power electronics under the bonnet, the Samsung unit comprises prismatic lithium-ion cells, which give the 500 a WLTP Combined range of 199 miles, a top speed of 93mph with 0-62mph acceleration in nine seconds.Prices for this heavily specified La Prima launch edition cabriolet start at £32,000 not including the Government’s £3,000 PiGG grant; the hard top version is £29,995. Officially both go on sale in October, but Fiat UK says they are effectively sold out.

Early next year, we’ll see the less well-specified versions arriving, priced at around £24,000 (without PiGG), though we’re still waiting for the drivetrain specifications for those cars and there’s a possibility that they might have smaller battery packs.

Despite the widely expressed view that it’s incredibly hard to make money out of small electric cars, the competition in this sector is numerous and tough. The Mercedes-Benz’s battery Smart car range starts at £20,350 with a range of 84 miles, Honda’s e costs from £29,660 with a maximum range of 137 miles. Skoda’s Citigo e IV costs £20,495 with a range of 162 miles and the Fiat’s most direct competitor, the Mini e costs from £27,900 with a range of 145 miles – all prices are without the PiGG grant. Fiat’s new 500 sits above these in terms of range, but below the newly emerging battery family hatchback market with cars such as the VW ID3, Renault’s Zoe or Nissan’s Leaf.

In metallic black coachwork, this prototype cabrio looks terrific, but Cinquecento is not a small car anymore. It’s 3,632mm long, which is 61mm longer than the Mark II combustion-engined version, it’s 1,683mm wide which is 56mm wider. To get that mattress battery under the floor the wheelbase is stretched by 22mm, with extended track front and rear. It weighs between 1,290 and 1,330kg depending on spec and it’s nominally a four-seater (though the rear seats are cramped for large adults) and the boot is a rather compact 185 litres

“I was a bit worried about the deep sills which hide the battery,” says Klaus Busse, head of design, “but with the big wheels [17 inch, although there’ll be 15 and 16-inch alternatives] and the body designed to accommodate them, it’s not an issue.”

Out driving in Turin alongside the River Po on fairly cut-up road surfaces the volt-powered 500 rides harshly and it rears and bucks like a young horse over the tram tracks which traverse the roads. So like previous 500 models, then, but on the smaller wheel options, we’d expect (and hope) the abrupt and noisy ride to get a little calmer. The MacPherson-strut front and torsion-beam suspension has a lot to do with the weight of the battery, but it handles reasonably well and feels grippy and nippy on the Piedmont capital’s mean streets. The steering is slightly over assisted and a bit dead feeling around the centre position, but it’s positive and loads up in corners - you’d get used to it, but the Mini e is better.

It’s certainly nippy, though. A shove on the accelerator sees the bluff grille-less nose surging for the gaps in the traffic and the acceleration is strong all the way up to and beyond motorway speeds. You’d not feel lost on the open road in this new 500. On Turin’s narrower streets it feels manoeuvrable, with a kerb-to-kerb turning circle of 9.6m it doesn’t have the uncanny steering of rear-drive rivals such as VW’s ID3, or the Smart car, but it’s pretty easy to park, especially with the light steering, automatic rear-view camera and 360 degree ‘bird view’. As to whether the world has been waiting for this low-speed pedestrian warning noise, which is Nino Rota singing the theme from Fellini’s 1973 movie Amarcord, well, we’ll leave you to judge…

The cabin feels quite lovely, though, with gorgeous embossed leather seats, an updated facia, a digital driver’s instrument binnacle and a centre touch screen like a crashed iPad. It feels nicely made and modern, although the screen functions take some learning and with the drive-mode selector and audio-volume dials down on the centre console where the choke and the starter sat on Giacosa’s 1957 original, an evening with the manual might well be recommended.

There’s more space up front, with more shoulder room, better storage space and a much-improved driving position, with a better steering-wheel angle, more seat adjustment and a lower (by 11mm) hip point despite the fact you are sitting on the battery. There are three driving modes: Normal, where the AC synchronous motor gives its full 87kW/220Nm (117bhp/162lb ft); Range where the output is the same but lifting the throttle activates partial regeneration braking up to 0.25g (which is common on electric cars if not the safest way of driving); and Sherpa where the motor is restricted to 57kW, top speed to 50mph and the air conditioning, heated seats and mirrors are switched off. Use this when you need to eke-out range to get to the next recharge, although Fiat should have programed the Tom Tom-based sat nav to show the nearest charge stations when it is selected.

And yes, you did read that right, heated seats and mirrors might be rather high end for what Luca de Meo, the Svengali behind the launch of the 2007 Mark II reloaded Cinquecento, called: “a boutique car for the working man,” but they are the very least of the equipment which comes with new 500. Autonomous driving at SAE level 2 is by no means self-driving, but the new 500 can do that as well as having all the emergency braking, pedestrian and cycle recognition and lane-keeping assistance system, albeit done with a couple of cameras rather than the more usual camera and radar.

Charging is via a household 3kW supply, or Mode 2 (the cable comes with the car), which takes 15 hours 15 minutes to charge from 0-100 per cent. The 7.4kW Mode 3 home wall box option (the one sold by Fiat is called Easy Wallbox), takes just under six hours, an 11kW street charger (also Mode 3) takes 4hrs 15mins and an 85kW DC super-fast charger will give a 0-80 per cent charge in 35 minutes.

There are a ton of unanswered questions around this new car, though the press launch and the start of sales in October will reveal more details on the range. But will there be a still-cheaper battery-electric Panda on the same base? And what is the future for last year’s innovative little Fiat Centoventi concept with its swappable battery packs to extend the range? And what about Lancia, Fiat’s revered historic marque, which currently uses the petrol 500 platform as a base for its Ypsilon city car?

I asked, but Fiat management remained as impassive as the Sphinx.

There’s also the proposed merger between Fiat Chrysler Auto and PSA Peugeot Citroën currently under review by EU antitrust investigators who are not expecting to issue their judgement before November this year? If the two companies joined forces, which one would take a lead in battery technology? And depending on that decision, where would that leave the new 500, or indeed Citroën’s own EV city car concept, the Ami One?

For the moment, however, and ride and price notwithstanding, the new 500 battery electric model creates a new design and performance standard for the electric small cars. Fiat calls it a “city car”, but after this exclusive first drive in the prototype, the new 500 seems a great deal more than that. Given a better charging structure than the crummy mob that exist in the UK, this is a car you’d use for as many journey’s as you could think of, it’s a little charmer…

The Facts

Fiat 500 e La Prima edition prototype

Price: £32,000 before £3,000 PiGG Government grant

Motor: ac synchronous motor driving front wheels via a single-speed transmission.

Battery 42kWh (gross) lithium-ion

Power/torque: 117bhp (87kW)/220Nm

0-62mph: 9 seconds

Top speed: 93mph

Range: WLTP 199 miles

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