Can free rentals solve electric car range anxiety?

Finally, a car company took a ride around the block on the reality bus — and came to grips with a key problem plaguing electric vehicles.

When Fiat debuts its new, all-electric 500e this summer in California — where else! — along with a bumper-to-bumper warranty and 48 months of free roadside assistance, the car will come with 12 days of free "alternative transport assistance" each year for the first three years.

"Alternative transport assistance" is Fiat-speak for "free-rental of a conventional gasoline-powered car" so 500e owners will have something to drive for trips in excess of the 500e's best-case-scenario, EPA-estimated range of 87 miles.

Of course, to achieve that distance before needing a charge, 500e owners will need to avoid driving uphill or against a headwind, as well as refraining from operating unnecessary accessories like the air conditioner and windshield wipers.

So, maybe 65 or 70 miles would be a more appropriate distance for them to trigger the alternative-transportation fail-safe.

Out of Range: How Far Can You Go?

Vehicle Range in Miles MSRP
2013 Tesla Model S 208 $62,400
2013 Fiat 500e 87 $33,200
2013 Honda Fit EV 82 $389/month lease only
2013 Ford Focus Electric 76 $39,200
2013 Nissan Leaf 75 (estimate) $28,800
2013 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive 68 $25,000
2013 Mitsubishi i-MiEV 62 NA
Sources: Fueleconomy.gov; manufacturer websites

Regardless at what distance one's self-preservation instinct kicks in, Fiat is the first electric car producer to face up to one of the most stubborn objections to EVs: range anxiety. (BMW also has announced plans to offer gas-powered loaners to owners of its i3 electric vehicle, expected to go on sale in 2014.)

No matter how much in taxpayer money the federal government rewards consumers who buy an EV, or how many recharging stations a city installs, average citizens worry that an EV's charge will peter out before they get where they are going.

This is hardly a new concern.

By 1900, there were nearly twice as many EVs on American roads as gasoline-powered cars.

In terms of how far they can go before recharging, EVs haven't progressed much since the two-seat Electric Road Wagon took to American streets in 1896, with 44 lead-acid cells and a 30-mile range.

As America's road system improved and driving longer distances grew more popular, EVs simply couldn't compete with cars armed with internal combustion engines. Demand eventually extinguished entirely.

Little more than doubling in range in 117 years is not exactly a giant leap forward; yet, here we are again, attempting to make EVs seem viable.

In their defense, just as was the case at the turn of the 20th century, EVs are ideal for folks who don't drive much farther than they can see from their upstairs window.

However, many of us make round trips in excess of 50 or 60 miles on a fairly regular basis, and that's where the range anxiety kicks in.

 Cheap alternatives to hybrids

Fun fuel-sipping cars: Cheap alternatives to hybrids: Our six favorite fuel-sippers for 2013 get more than 30 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving yet cost from $15,420 to $20,020, including delivery fees. That's incredibly affordable when you consider that the average cost of a new car or truck topped $30,000 last year.

Other than passing out a few grand to soften the blow of an EV's inflated price tag, the federal government hasn't been much help in easing consumer angst, nor have manufacturers managed to come up with even a somewhat reasonable solution.

That is until Chrysler/Fiat's Alternative Transportation Program.

In a nutshell, each purchaser or lessee of a $33,200 500e will receive a personalized account number from Enterprise Holdings, operating more than 6,200 locations for Enterprise, Alamo and National rental car companies.

With delivery of a new 500e, Fiat will deposit credits for up to 12 days of free rental cars with unlimited mileage into the owner's or lessee’s Enterprise account. Fiat will repeat this for the second and third year of ownership.

Owners/lessees will be able to use those credits to rent a gas-powered 500, Dodge Dart or Chrysler 200 at any Enterprise, Alamo or National location.

Granted, this doesn't solve the 500e's limited-range problem, but at least Fiat admits range anxiety is a legitimate issue and has done something meaningful to address it.

It's about time.