We Drove in the Sunshine

In 1964, a song by Gale Garnett filled the AM radio airwaves, called We Sang in the Sunshine. Seems Gale would spend a year with the guy, but then “be on her way.” Why a year? I never understood that arbitary limit. If things were good, why not stick around?

In about two weeks, the sweet little Fiat 500e that I’ve enjoyed every day since January 19th is going away. It’s staying here for three months, which is only a quarter of a year, but it’s way longer than the one  week that has been the standard visitation period for the last 1,150 plus cars I’ve sampled over the last nearly quarter century.

What  hurts is that I’ve really fallen for this little car. Over a couple thousand miles, to work and back, off for an errand or a meal or a band practice, orchestra rehearsal, or trip to the post office, little Fidelio, as I call him, has not failed me. When I walk up to him in the parking lot, I still enjoy his retro styling, based on the original, popular 500 of the 1950’s through mid 70’s–Italy’s “Beetle.”Funny, in a way, that Britain’s popular little postwar car, the Mini, is with us in 2016 too, re-imagined for modern times. Like a European 50th high school reunion.

I love Fidelio’s light blue paint, an intentionally retro shade. His silver plastic hubcaps look like alloy wheels but are hubcaps just the same, and appropriately so. Small, round headlamps and the proportions of the face give Fidelio a Boston Terrier kind of expression. He’s not grinning like a latter day Mazda or a 1950’s chrome mouthed Buick, but he seems happy and content.

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Fidelio’s interior is perfect for me, a slim 5-8 man. For being a little car, a Fiat 500e is a tall one, too, so headroom is generous for me–and would be for taller folks, too. The seats sit up high and firm, in a vinyl and sport cloth with jaunty red stripes.

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The dash features numerous chrome rings around pretty much everything from the instruments to the climate and radio controls to the gleaming door handles that lock when you push them towards the door.

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In an age of dull gray, plain tan, and somber black interior shades, my little Fiat enjoys a broad stroke of white. The dash panels mimic the painted ones of the original cars, and bring back a nostalgic pang for cars of my youth, with their expanses of painted metal and projecting light switches and radio knobs. All dangerous, but we’re talking about feelings here.

One thing about an electric car–especially, perhaps this one. It’s very very quiet in there when you’re rolling down the road–even at freeway velocities. Someone said recently something about double-insulated glass, but I can say that the nicer-than-I-expected audio system delivers crisp, clear, balanced sound on my favorite FM station–KCSM Jazz 91, as well as my favorite Sirius XM Satellite Radio selections.

Electric motors spin contentedly, and don’t vibrate like gas engines do. When you press the right-side pedal, Fidelio just moves out, quickly. The torque in the single-speed transmission is surprising and delightful, and the extra weight of hundreds of pounds of lithium-ion battery beneath you guarantees a low center of gravity. While most errands are in town and back and forth to work, I got out on to a few curving back roads now and again, and was once again amazed by the handling and just plain fun of this little beast.

Numbers come up in regular car stories for things like engine horsepower, cargo capacity, and fuel economy, along with Government efficiency ratings. In an electric car like Fidelio, it’s all about range. Sure, there’s a speedometer, but you really want to know how far you can go, all based on battery charge. Fidelio’s ingeniously simple center dial displays battery percentage off fullness both graphically with a green left parenthesis and with a number (85%, for example). At the bottom of the dial is the range display, big and bold.

What’s funny is, sometimes the range number grows while you’re using power. It means your average is improving based on your recent driving. Downhill, or stop-and-go? That means you’re generating new electricity and using little stored energy. Flying along at 65 on  the freeway, especially uphill, takes it away more quickly. There’s a little arrow that goes up or down (or is invisible) to indicate the trend.

To keep the range numbers good, I charged my car at work on a Level 2 charger in front of my building. Level 2 means 240 volts. I can fill up the battery from around half full, which it usually is by the time I’ve commuted home and back to work, before lunchtime. Then, with my EV driver courtesy, I move Fidelio aside for another company employee.

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Charging becomes a routine. You wave your little card in front of the ChargePoint bollard, it beeps, then you plug in the large handle which feels a bit like a gas filler, and then verify the machine is charging. Then, walk away. ChargePoint notifies me with a text message when it notices that Fidelio isn’t absorbing any more charge.

Sometimes, I’ll charge overnight at home at lowly 120–Level 1. It can take 12 hours to do what 4 hours does on 240. But it means I have a full battery to use on the weekends.

Over my two and a half months of driving, I’ve had to use our family gas burner a few times for trips to visit the grandchildren, or a bass lesson 50 miles away. But nearly always, Fidelio is available and steps up to the job.

My upright bass, which I play and also use to measure automotive cargo capacity, fits in the back when I flip down the second row seats. It just barely makes it, and only at a particular angle. But it works. I can also carry a bass guitar and a practice amplifier. If I need my big amplifier–it won’t fit. If it’s an electric only gig, everything slides right in. This is a small car, but a practical one.

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It’s hard to think of anything annoying about Fidelio, but there are a couple of nits. First of all, the flip-out “switchblade” key often opens in my pocket. Also, the sunvisors are pathetically slim and short, so you’re of luck if the sun is low in the sky as you drive north or west. The Bluetooth-connect, voice-activated telephone dialer works fine for calling numbers in your phone, but if you need to dictate the numbers, it suddenly becomes deaf. And that’s the end of my complaints.

Regarding efficiency, while gas and hybrid cars get fuel economy ratings in MPG (miles per gallon), the electrics get MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent). I’ll state my final numbers when my test is over, but at this point, I’m averaging around 135 MPGe–even better than the government ratings. I’ve seen as high as 178 MPGe, depending on the trip. I’d say that’s EXCELLENT.

I’d really like to just keep driving in the sunshine with Fidelio for years, but he has to go back to the press fleet and please some other folks. I got him with 79 miles on the clock–just break in time. It’s like he’s mine. I could go lease my own 500e, but I think I’ll wait to see if the new Chevrolet Bolt EV will deliver at least some of the zip and an honest 200 mile range. Then it would be perfect. But despite the Chevy’s attractive, up-to-date look and game-changing range number, the Bolt and the other EVs can’t touch Fidelio for driving experience and cuteness.

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