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Fiat-Chrysler's Electric Car Gamble: First Drive

Stocks in this article: F GM NSANY TM

The Fiat 500e shares with the Ford Focus Electric the lack of settings for acceleration, charging and braking -- you only get in the car and go; there is nothing to adjust. In contrast, the also-California-only Toyota (TM) RAV4 EV has a variety of settings for all of these parameters; Chevrolet and Nissan are somewhere in-between.

The acceleration is a bit muted, similar to the Ford Focus Electric but as silky-smooth as any of the competitors. The overall NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) is as solid as any car, period -- matching the class-leading Ford Focus Electric.

Now I'll share my criticisms about this car. It's obviously tiny. That's not an objective negative, but it does severely limit the appeal of this car. I'm sure you're familiar with the regular Fiat 500, and this car is the same small size. I looked at the rear seat for a second, and decided not to attempt to get in. The luggage space is miniscule, too.

That's fine, I guess -- some people are OK with a tiny rear seat and luggage space. At least this car is bigger than a Mercedes Smart Car.

The other problem is that I can't get close to a good seating position, and the culprit is the nontelescoping steering wheel. I need the steering wheel to move at least two inches, possibly three or more, closer to my torso. I'm 6 feet tall, and I have to set the seat back almost straight up, causing extreme discomfort.

The Fiat 500e shares this lack of telescoping steering wheel and resulting bad seating position with the Nissan LEAF, the pre-2010 Toyota Prius and the pre-2007 Mini Cooper. In the cases of the LEAF and Mini, that problem was fixed in those years.

The Fiat 500e will face the most direct competition from the Nissan LEAF, Ford Focus Electric and the soon-to-arrive Chevrolet Spark EV. There are important things we don't know about the Spark, such as the range and exact price and equipment, but here is what we know compared with the Fiat: It's a lot more powerful (more than twice the torque) and it's got a usable back seat.

In terms of charging, Fiat uses the kind of 6.6 kW AC charger that's in the Nissan LEAF and Ford Focus Electric, which is twice the capacity (speed) of any of the two Chevrolet models. On the other hand, the Chevrolet Spark EV also has the 440 AC charger, which should become a big bonus in the coming years.

One word about styling: The Fiat 500e is beautiful, inside and out. It's a major styling statement. Because of this, and because you can't get a comfortable seating position if you're a 6 feet tall, it would indicate that this car is most likely to be bought or leased by short, young, single females, living in the major California cities.

At the time of submitting this article, the author was long GOOG, AAPL, FB and NVDA.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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