Electric Cars

As Fiat Hits the Brakes on E-Mobility, a German Entrepreneur Powers Ahead

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Electric cars remain a money losing proposition for most major carmakers, but private initiatives could help pave the way for expanding e-mobility.

  • Facts


    • Fiat says it loses $14,000 on each electric car it sells.
    • Germany does not have subsides for electric cars like many other industrial economies.
    • Only an estimated 20,000 out of 60 million vehicles in Germany are electric.
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A Fiat 500 converted to electric power by the Hamburg entrepreneur Sirri Karabag. Source: DPA
A Fiat 500 converted to electric power by the Hamburg entrepreneur Sirri Karabag . Source: DPA


It’s not every day that a car company executive tries to dissuade people from buying its vehicles. But that’s exactly what Sergio Marchionne, the head of Italy’s Fiat, did when he pleaded with customers to avoid the electric version of its ultra-compact Cinquecento (500).

“I hope you don’t buy it. Every time I sell one, it costs me $14,000,” he complained recently.

Never before had an auto executive so frankly admitted that e-cars are still a losing proposition for most carmakers. Mr. Marchionne has decided to limit his losses by selling only Fiat’s electric vehicles in places such as California, where carmakers are required by law to offer them alongside conventional models. A Fiat 500e on the west coast of the United States costs $31,800 ($23,741), but state and federal subsidies lower the sticker price by up to $14,000.

Yet German fans of the tiny Cinquecento are unlikely to see an electric version anytime soon.

“There’s no business model for a fully electric vehicle right now,” confirmed a Fiat spokesman. “It’s a losing proposition.”

Sirri Karabag, the biggest importer of Fiat vehicles in Germany, begs to disagree. For the past few years, the entrepreneur has been successfully converting conventional Fiat vans and 500s, as well as Volkswagen Beetles, to electric propulsion.

“We make money with electric cars,” Mr. Karabag said, adding that roughly half of the 600 converted vehicles his firm had sold were Fiat 500s. “We’re aiming to sell 20,000 electric vehicles by 2020.”

His success relies on a large portion of improvisation and innovation. At first glance, Mr. Karabag’s electric Fiat 500 looks like a regular gasoline powered car. But under the hood, he’s replaced the combustion engine with a German certified electrical motor with a range of roughly 100 kilometers. The unofficial 500e sells for around €24,000.

Germany offers no green subsidies for electric vehicles. That is one of the main reasons Fiat refuses to sell its own e-cars in Europe’s largest economy.

“You can see how far a producer like Fiat is from mass producing and selling economically reasonable electric cars,” Mr. Karabag said.

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