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Fiat-Chrysler's Electric Car Gamble: First Drive

Stocks in this article: F GM NSANY TM

I just spent a little more than an hour driving the Fiat 500e about 40 miles. I also rode in the car as a passenger for an additional distance.

This is an electric version of the "new" 500 that Fiat rolled out in North America in 2011. Like its gasoline-powered sister, the 500e's visual design pays homage to the tiny original 500s that were ubiquitous on Italian streets in the '60s and '70s.

The 500e will be in Fiat dealerships in California starting around the middle of 2013. The price will be $32,500 before tax adjustments similar to those made for other electric cars.

What this means is that many Californians will pay $22,500 net, before regular sales tax. In addition, Fiat is offering three-year leases with $999 down, for $199 or $166 a month. These leases also include 12 free rental car days, so you can get a gasoline car for road trips or when you need a moving van/truck.

The Fiat 500e is a straightforward electric car, making it drive similarly to EVs such as the Nissan (NSANY) LEAF, Ford (F) Focus and Chevrolet Volt. The basic drivetrain ensures that these cars have far far more in common than not.

In Fiat's case, the battery cells are made by Samsung, and Bosch delivers most of the drivetrain modules, including the whole battery pack and the electric motor. Fiat then integrates the hardware and the software, calibrates it, and produces the whole package in its Mexico plant together with the regular gasoline Fiat 500 models.

The battery has a gross capacity of 24 kWh -- the same as the Nissan LEAF but more than the Ford's 23 kWh -- but the usable portion is as high as 22.8 kWh, a far higher percentage than anything else I've seen as a standard charging mode, which in this car is the only mode.

The battery sits in the floor, from the front of the front seats all the way to the rear "axle." It adds 600 pounds of weight to the tiny car, yielding a total of 2,950 pounds, but it also shifts the weight distribution from 63% front to 53% front. Together with the lowered center of gravity, this significantly improves handling, which I found to be excellent.

The low weight helps contribute an an EPA-certified average range of 87 miles, which is better than its closest competitors, the Nissan LEAF and Ford Focus Electric. The soon-to-arrive Chevrolet Spark EV may come close to this number; we shall see.

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