Electric cars

Could this little car come back (again)?

Could this little car come back (again)?

Stellantis is still looking to rebound the Fiat brand in the United States, where CEO Carlos Tavares is convinced the Italian small car brand has a future. He thinks there are customers in North America who want a small car as a second or third vehicle, especially in areas like California.

Driving a European Spicy Red Fiat 500

The 500 we jumped into was a spicy red number with a removable fabric top. It’s clearly a descendant of the original Cinquecento and cute as a button.

Inside was a lacquered red dashboard with very cool cloth seats, and not just because of the “Fiat” motif or the red piping and badges. It was a special edition (red) model where only the driver’s seat was red, the rest of the seats were black. So chic Italian. The heavy use of black plastic in the relatively spartan interior didn’t even bother us. He made the “500” appear in red in the center of the steering wheel.

The Fiat 500 may be small, but it offers tons of headroom, which makes the front seats a great place to be – the small rear seats not so much.

It’s been a while since we’ve driven the older Fiat 500e, which debuted in the US for the 2013 model year with a range too limited for the US market. It had a 24 kWh battery on board and an EPA-rated range of around 84 miles. (The old 500e was a so-called “compliance car,” built only to meet regional regulations; these low-end, cheap EVs have largely been replaced over the past decade by equally affordable options with more power, range and size.) Compare that to this new third-gen 500 with a 62kWh battery and around 198 miles of range on the more generous WLTP test cycle.

Even with a gasoline engine, the first second generation 500s were not powerful. They had a small 1.4-liter engine that produced a measly 101 horsepower and 98 lb-ft of torque. In our testing, it took 9.7 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph and the quarter mile took a somewhat leisurely 17.2 seconds at 78.5 mph. Being light and nimble, the old 500 was the most fun in tight corners or on, say, a go-kart track (or MotorTrend’s figure-eight test course). For the 2019 model year, the car has been upgraded to a turbocharged version with 135 hp and 150 lb-ft of the 1.4-litre engine, and there were also more outlandish Abarth performance models.

Impactful and fun

The new all-electric Fiat 500 that Europeans are snapping up has a good boost and enough power for a short trip through the streets of Amsterdam thanks to an 87kW motor that produces around 118 horsepower, which improves the zero at -60 mph scoot in about 9 seconds.

One-pedal driving worked perfectly – take your foot off the accelerator pedal and the car comes to a quick stop without needing to touch the brake pedal.

The latest 500 is even more fun to drive with its lightness and instant torque. Being small, he feels connected to the road and has the reflexes of a kart. Our test car’s navigation system was a little wonky and we got lost, giving us double the drive time. The small car can turn around easily, convenient for narrow European streets.

Our little ride erased all old memories of cute but tattered and underpowered rides in a 500. If the new 500 is any indication of the kind of Fiats headed to the US in the future, we have more hope for the brand. Tavares has given each of the 14 brands under the Stellantis umbrella 10 years of funding to prove the core models.

Driving the quirky 2021 Citroën Ami

If we had any doubts about the competitiveness of the Fiat 500, they were quickly put aside after our next ride in a 2021 Citroën Ami, which is essentially an electric quadricycle. Don’t get me wrong, the Ami is adorable to look at with its large front window and single wiper, glass roof that extends in front of the driver and connects to a flimsy hardtop and long side window that doesn’t don’t roll. From the outside, press a button at the front to open the rear-hinged driver’s door – the passenger door is hinged at the front, which allowed Citroën to use identical doors. To open the doors from the inside, pull on an orange nylon strap.

In front of the driver is a small display that shows what gear you’re in (easy to mistake with the shift buttons in a module on the side of the driver’s seat near the ground), gear and level dump. The navigation system: a support for your phone. The plastic dash has cupholders, but they’re so far in front of the driver and passenger that they’re hard to reach.

But it’s not a real car and doesn’t pretend to be. The Ami has an 8hp motor and a top speed of 28mph, making it a 1,000lb scooter for two with protection from the elements and more stability. It takes off like a golf cart, has a range of about 43 miles, and stops in no time. The car is loud and jerky, the ride bumpy and almost uncomfortable, with little help from the thin leatherette cushions on the two molded plastic seats. Want to quirky? The Friend gets the highest marks. Want something small, sleek, electric and (hopefully) affordable? The new 500 would make a compelling option even here in America…