That's because California's zero-emissions mandate, which requires major automakers to collectively produce 7,500 emissions-free vehicles between 2012 and 2014 (and many more after that), is making the Golden State a fertile birthing ground for EVs. Between state and federal incentives, as well as companies angling to meet their production quotas, it's also creating quite the buyer's market.
Take Fiat's new 500e. Created for and sold in California alone, this $32,500 "compliance special" can be leased for just $199 per month with $999 down, the same as a gas-powered, $16,700 500 Pop. Looking to buy? Government and Fiat-provided spiffs lower the cost to just $20,500.
Those kinds of numbers are enough to get even folks who've never considered an EV to stop and think. But the 500e's charm extends far beyond its value equation, as we found during a morning behind the wheel at Chrysler's proving grounds in Chelsea, Michigan.
In place of the standard 500's 101 horsepower, 98 lb-ft of torque 1.4-liter four-cylinder, the 500e uses a permanent-magnet AC synchronous electric motor that sends 111 ponies and 149 lb-ft of twist to the front wheels through a push-button single-speed transmission.
Zero-to-60 mph arrives in around nine seconds - roughly a half-second quicker than the fossil fuel edition can manage - and the diesel-like abundance of low-end pull means it feels particularly zippy at around-town speeds and in merging situations.
At first, the 500e's 24-kWh lithium-ion battery pack sounds like a fun-sapping, agility-destroying deal breaker - the heated and liquid-cooled unit adds 642 lbs. to the subcompact, boosting the curb weight to nearly 3,000 lbs.
In reality, its benefits are wide-ranging. Mounted below the floor and stretching nearly all the way from the front seats to the rear bumper, the pack improves weight distribution from a rather nose-heavy 64/36 front/rear to 57/43 while also lowering the center of gravity. These changes, along with stiffer springs and rigidity-enhancing reinforcements necessitated by the heavy batteries, help the 500e to seem significantly more planted and composed in turns than its gas-powered sibling.
Looking the EV part
Unique front and rear fascias with "dot matrix" detailing, deeper side sills, special 15-inch wheels and a rear spoiler let onlookers know it's the all-electric Fiat they're gazing at. Not just for show, these touches are the result of more than 140 hours of wind tunnel testing and cut the coefficient of drag from .36 to .31 - enough to add 5 miles of range at highway speeds.
Total combined range is rated by the EPA at 87 miles - slightly better than what the competition can offer - and Fiat claims that 100 miles is easily achievable in city driving, when the regenerative brakes really come into the picture. Easy to modulate and natural in feel, they're almost always working to recapture energy, switching to conventional friction braking only below eight mph or when the battery is fully charged. They also play a role in the 500e's combined mpg-equivalent figure of 116 MPGe.
With a standard 6.6-kW charger, refilling the battery takes under four hours with a 240-volt charger. A free smartphone app lets owners remotely remotely check on battery status, locate charging stations, schedule charging when rates are lowest, and pre-heat or cool their cars.
On the road, EV data like remaining range and charge level is relayed by a model-specific seven-inch TFT instrument panel, which also displays "power," "eco" and "charge" modes. Rather than being actual selectable settings, they simply indicate how efficiently the 500e is being driven - similar to real-time fuel economy gauges in gasoline vehicles, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that going easy on the throttle is the way to keep the rather simplistic system happy and decrease energy consumption.
An aftermarket-style, snap-on TomTom navigation unit provides additional vehicle info but looks cheap and actually impedes forward visibility - an in-dash touchscreen infotainment system would be a welcome upgrade. That's a complaint we've levied before on the standad 500.
Unsurprisingly, the other major interior low point is space (or lack thereof). For all of its handling benefits, the battery pack does intrude into the diminutive runabout's already cramped cabin, robbing four inches of rear legroom and four cubic feet of cargo space. Only children and the most vertically-challenged adults will be able to squeeze in back, although there's still a reasonably-useful 26.3 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear bench folded down.
On the plus side, the 500e is based on the standard 500's range-topping Lounge trim level, meaning the interior boasts a premium Alpine audio system, heated seats, automatic climate control and the aforementioned nav system. That content isn't impressive at the ostensible $32,500 price (don't forget about all those credits), but it's more than respectable after the hefty incentives come into play.
Also included is access to a rental car from Enterprise for 12 days a year for the first three years of ownership, a measure intended to ease range anxiety and facilitate longer road trips than the 500e can manage.
Leftlane's bottom line
Well-executed, surprisingly spunky and aggressively incentivized, the 500e is good enough to make EV enthusiasts outside of California green with envy.
Like all EVs, it isn't for everyone, but buyers who can live with its range limitations might just find the electric Cinquecento to be a more attractive package - especially to lease - than the standard 500.
2014 Fiat 500e base price, $32,500.
Words and photos by Nat Shirley.