PhotoBack in the Depression, they had something called the Rural Electrification Administration. It rushed around stringing wires to bring electricity to isolated farms and small towns.

Today we have something sort of similar.  Call it the Mobile Electrification Agglomeration. Automakers are rushing around jamming big batteries into small cars and pronouncing them all-electric or hybrid vehicles.

The sparks have really been flying this week, thanks to the Los Angeles Car Show, where automakers are rolling out and charging up their newest electric creations. The latest is the Fiat 500e, an all-electric version of the cute little car that hasn't caught on quite as well in the U.S. as it has in Europe.

The 500e, which boasts a range of about 80 miles, will initially be sold only in California, which has a tough new law requiring automakers to manufacture a certain number of zero-tailpipe-emission vehicles.  But although it maintains a greeny exterior, if you take a tape measure to  California you notice something -- it's pretty big.

Range anxiety

While San Francisco proper and parts of Los Angeles qualify as high-density cities that make tiny cars practical, the rest of the state is criss-crossed with giant freeways and commuters who travel relatively great distances to get to work. While this may be OK for tiny cars, it sort of works against all-electric cars, most of which are limited to something less than 100 miles on a charge.

PhotoThink we're exaggerating? Take a look at the saga of Nissan Leaf owner Rob Eshman, who contracted a bad case of range anxiety buzzing around -- when not sitting glumly in the breakdown lane -- after getting his Leaf.

But California has decreed that automakers must be at least semi-pure so that's where the electric cars are going, at least for now.

Fiat is also introducing a slightly bigger version of the 500. Called the 500L, it comes witih four doors and quite a bit more room than the original 500, which has not exactly been a barn burner since it was introduced in the U.S. two years ago.

The powers that be at Fiat like to think the 500 is in the same class as BMW's Mini Cooper.  They can think that but most car enthusiasts would be to differ. We spent a week with a 500 a few months ago and found it lackluster compared to any of the three Mini Coopers we've owned.  (Actually, it's now four Mini Coopers since No. 3 had the bad fortune to be in an underground parking garage in Jersey City, NJ, a few weeks ago). 

The car has done well worldwide, selling more than 1 million so far but sales in the U.S. have been a paltry 36,000. 


Staff photos

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