From the archive: Fiat's early electric efforts disappoint

Fiat Cinquecento Elettra front quarter turning
Fiat Cinquecento Elettra front quarter turning

Putting batteries in a Cinquecento made it 400kg heavier

“The electric car’s problem is the battery, and that’s why I think it will be difficult for it to be an alternative to the combustion engine. It may be that soon the industry can produce a battery with more power and a greater range. But I think electric cars will always be limited to use in towns.

“Electric cars may be a specific solution in a specific area, but they won’t solve the ecology problem at a global level, because you have to generate power for their batteries.”

No, not another sceptical letter from an Autocar reader in 2024 but quotes from Fiat R&D boss Giancarlo Michellone in 1990.


Hardly what you would expect to hear from a man who had just created his employer’s first electric car powertrain – but then Fiat did rather specialise in cars for towns.

Having proven their technology in Lancia Y10 prototypes, one of which won Turin’s annual Gran Premio 4e for eco vehicles in 1989, Michellone’s team took the Fiat Panda – still hugely popular after a decade – and replaced its four-pot petrol engine with a 12bhp motor, which had regenerative braking but still used the manual gearbox.

Fiat Panda Elettra front quarter
Fiat Panda Elettra front quarter

Even with a very small capacity, the lead-gel battery pack weighed 350kg and was so large that it filled not only the boot but also the rear passenger area. And restricted luggage loading to 100kg. And supplied a range of just 40-60 miles. And took eight hours to fully recharge. And was so weak that a petrol burner had to be fitted for cabin heating. Not great then.

As for performance, regrettably that was laughable too. Top speed was 43mph, it took 10sec to hit 25mph and it couldn’t climb gradients steeper than 20%.

In August 1991, we drove a Panda Elettra and reported: “Apart from the uncanny quietness, it is much like driving any other Panda.

“Subjectively, performance seems much better than you might expect, but it will hardly make the hairs on your neck stand on end. But as a town car working in heavy traffic, it gets along well enough.”

Fiat Panda Elettra boot batteries
Fiat Panda Elettra boot batteries

On top of all that, it cost the lira equivalent of £12,000 (about £26,270 in today’s money) – three times as much as a petrol Panda or about the same as a BMW 318i.

Fiat was, of course, aware of and bothered by these severe limitations. It soon announced a new nickel-cadmium battery chemistry for 1992, boosting the car’s power-to-weight ratio by half (but also its price) and had bought a French battery company to do zinc bromide and lithium R&D.

Laudably, it also wanted to solve the issues downstream, planning to open 20 methane-fuelled power plants by 1995 (whether it did so is unclear, but it has since sold more than 300,000 ‘natural power’ cars).

By 1992, Fiat had sold a decent 400 Panda Elettras, encouraging it to make an electric version of its latest baby hatch, the reborn 500, despite the need to strengthen the floor and suspension as the weight rose by more than 400kg to 1110kg.

Fiat Cinquecento Elettra side
Fiat Cinquecento Elettra side

Trying a Cinquecento Elettra in May 1992, we said: “It is very difficult to drive as Fiat would want you to. The speedo asks that you shift gears at 13, 26, 39 and 45mph, but the instant consumption window does not always agree.

“Its weight means it rides like a sledge and its low-rolling-resistance tyres help mask all signs of the petrol car’s effervescent handling.

“The Elettra is cramped, it’s uncomfortable, it’s neither practical nor enjoyable, it’s slow and it’s of questionable environmental worth. It’s the worst car Fiat has built for decades.”

Ouch! What did the public reckon, though? Happily for us, Italian magazine Quattroruote gave some Panda drives in Milan.

Ettore Delli Carri, a vet, said: “I’m enthusiastic about it – maybe because I’ve almost reached the point of rejecting cars. You can feel the weight, yet it’s fast and easy to handle. If it cost half as much, I’d buy it immediately.”

Giuseppe Giovenzana, a hi-fi dealer, said: “You immediately feel at ease and realise that it’s ideal for moving around in city traffic.”

However, Tobia Di Primio, a taxi driver, said: “Perhaps for the city it’s fine, but for moving quickly even in heavy traffic it lacks the necessary acceleration. You know, we have a different way of driving.”

Skip forward three decades and Fiat launched a 500 EV with a 200-mile range and 177bhp (albeit for £27,940), and the all-new Panda EV due this July should be even better.