Electric cars have been around since carriages first moved under their own power more than a century ago, yet they have still yet to catch on. Although perceived environmental concerns have made the concept more relevant in recent years, it’s still a long way off from being a suitable form of daily transportation. The biggest hurdles have been speed, range, weight, capacity and building a suitable infrastructure for the vehicles themselves. On another note, most of the electric cars this author has sampled, have been about as tantalizing as a plate of Tofu (without the lettuce).
|1. With the E, MINI is joined only by Tesla in offering electric cars to the public.
2. The MINI E uses lithium ion batteries with 5088 individual cells to generate about 30 kilowatts of useable storage.
3. Using a 60 amp wall mounted box, the MINI E can be fully charged in as little as 2-3 hours.
4. MINI has announced that it will extend the MINI E lease program throughout 2010.
Contrast that with the MINI Cooper. Here’s a small car with excitement in spades. It looks great, it’s quick and fun to drive and iconic status means ownership is rewarding on many levels. So how about fusing the concepts of MINI and electric car together? Well that’s exactly what parent BMW has done with the MINI E.
FUN MEETS FAR OUT
Past electric car experiments in North America have included the sci-fi looking GM EV1 and the conventional appearing Ford Ranger, both of which still have a loyal fan base. However the MINI E adopts the Ranger approach, being based on a regular production vehicle, rather than specially built E-car.
Consequently, when you walk up to it, the car looks almost like any regular Cooper from a glance. However, pop the gas cap and you see a plug outlet. Look in the trunk and you see a bulging entity where the rear seat used to be (that houses the batteries). Under the hood, a conventional gasoline engine has given way to an electric motor, housed under a huge box that looks like a 21st century treasure chest. With all this hardware, the MINI E is no bantam on the scales – curb weight is around 3,300 lbs, around the same as some mid-size sedans.
Inside the cabin is fairly conventional, but a big battery operation gauge, mounted directly ahead of the driver indicates this is something a little different. Like the standard MINI, the E version features a centrally mounted speedometer.
Once you’ve adjusted the seat, insert the key and press the button. You can’t hear anything and it takes a while to register that the car is ready to go. Move the automatic shifter into drive and you’re off.
SUFFICIENT POWER, EXCESSIVE BRAKES
As an electric vehicle, peak torque is all in at zero rpm, meaning that as soon as you hit the accelerator it actually goes pretty good. In testing, BMW engineers have quoted a 0-60 mph time of 8.2 seconds, quite impressive considering the weight of the car. It also means that you can cope pretty well with most traffic situations that are thrown at you. We had to deal with fairly fast moving flow, inconsiderate drivers and some quite steep inclines and dips and not once did we feel the car couldn’t cope – unlike some other EVs.
What you also notice about the MINI E, when in motion, is the regenerative braking system – it’s aggressive almost to the point of being fierce. At city driving speeds, taking your foot of the accelerator almost causes the MINI E to come to a stop completely on its own. It takes quite a bit getting used to, but the byproduct is an efficient process in recharging those heavy batteries behind you and extending range, with is about 100-120 miles, before you need to plug it in.
Top speed is reportedly 95 miles per hour and while we didn’t get the chance to experience freeway driving, it’s more than enough to keep up with the flow of interstate traffic.
Other than that, steering and handling are about what you’d expect of a regular MINI, which is to say, excellent. But the absence of any “broom, broom,” noises, indicates that you’re not likely to win a stoplight Grand Prix.
At present, BMW has approximately 450 MINI Es in a field trial program across the U.S. Approximately 250 are in California, the rest in New York and New Jersey. Customers driving them have to foot a staggering $850 per month lease that includes all scheduled maintenance and insurance. Like the EV1 and Ranger programs, these lessees will not be able to buy the vehicles once the field trial ends. The test has proved quite challenging, especially on the East Coast as there is very little existing infrastructure designed to cope with EVs, though this is slowly changing. While at this time it’s too early to say whether electric cars really will catch on, the MINI E represents an interesting and somewhat more practical alternative to what has come before.