8.12.2008MINI E electric review
As the first product of 'Projekt i' for BMW, a remarkable electric Mini not only introduces a clearly defined market sector but provides real-time responses to shape the Mini's future and Iain Robertson drove the $1million car exclusively.
Unveiling an innovative new car at the Los Angeles Motor Show is hardly a great way to make motoring headlines in the UK. Yet, when that new car is as revolutionary as the Mini E, creating a test drive opportunity became a priority. Hence, my drive to and from Munich, BMW's headquarters and an 'electric' drive in a remarkable Mini.
The logic for the LA launch is linked to both the State of California's 'clean air' legislation and the US government incentives given to drivers of eco-friendly motorcars. No less than 500 of a strictly limited run of 560 examples have been despatched to North America and, from a select list of potential and very keen operators, a monthly lease fee of $850 will provide a domestic charging device (fitted by a BMW Mini technician) and a Mini E for a fixed term of 12 months.
Although it may seem hard to comprehend at that price (especially given the current economic climate), Mini personnel have been inundated, through the firm's web-site, with requests to pay for the privilege of running the new model. A market acceptable lease rate was reached and still the requests poured in. Nobody will be able to buy the cars, as they remain the property of Mini and each will be stripped and comprehensively checked post-trial at 'Projekt i', in Munich.
The Mini E features the use of Lithium-ion battery technology in an industry 'first'. However, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that the cars are as easy to drive and all-but-identical to the conventional petrol or diesel powered models is a major landmark. Checking around the car, its under-bonnet area is filled with an electric 'engine' (in a sealed box) and the CVT transmission, while opening the hatchback door reveals a rear compartment (where the back seats would have been) packed with the equivalent of 5,088 mobile-phone batteries. There is a negligible boot space, which amounts to little more than a standard Mini Ã¢â‚¬" the car is now a strict two-seater.
The start procedure is identical to every Mini; insert the fob into its receptacle and depress the 'Start' button alongside. The only audible suggestion of motion is a distant hum as the transmission selector is slipped into Ã¢â‚¬ËœDrive' and the throttle pedal is depressed. Although the car is just like an automatic to drive, the use of a transmission deceleration energy recovery system, which augments the battery power and helps to extend the car's usable range, means that adopting a more advanced driving style is preferable.
Most of the time, there is scarcely a need to use the car's brakes, even in stop-start conditions around town. An engine power equivalent of 204bhp ensures that the Mini E delivers the most astonishing pace. Although its top speed is governed to 93mph, floor the accelerator pedal and the urge is spirited enough to despatch the 0-60mph sprint in less than 8.0 seconds, with no cessation of punch all the way to its maximum speed.
Yet, apart from the fancy 'paint-job', which amounts to the application of several stylish 'E' logos and stripes in garish yellow, on the standard gunmetal grey paintwork, and the virtual lack of extraneous noise, apart from some electric motor whine and accompanying tyre roar, this Mini blended into the Munich roads network like every other Mini spotted on the test route. It was never less than amusing to drive, in a way that all Minis are. In other words, the suspension can become caught out over severe bumps, yet the steering responses are instant and the overall handling (which matches BMW's 'Driving Machine' ethos of a 50:50 fore and aft weight balance) is engaging and typical of the brand.
The downsides are few but are summed-up generally as a restriction to just two seats, a remarkable range of almost 150 miles before a two-hour recharge is deemed essential (which, although triple the range of most other electric cars on the UK market, is disappointing alongside a petrol version managing 300 miles and a diesel around 450 miles) and the simple fact that you will never be able to buy this car. The research into the technology will continue under the 'Projekt i' handle but will extend into other BMW products and will not necessarily be electricity-based.
Overall impression? It is an amazing privilege to stand alongside a giant like BMW and experience its might in such an empathetic manner. I have now driven one tenable view of the future and it is hugely satisfying.
Model tested: MINI E
Body-styles: 3-door hatchback and 4-door estate
Trim grades: E
Prices: $850/month lease rate (impossible to buy)
In the showroom: on trial in USA and Germany
Review star rating: 5 STARS
Warranty: irrelevant (prototype)
WhatGreenCar data: MINI E Li-ion
Iain Robertson © WhatGreenCar.com 2008