This is the second in the CocoEco series…(see “The Hero and the Sidekick” for full explanation.)
Given the history, I’m not typically one who would sign up for an automaker’s electric car “experiment” without a few details. But when BMW announced that it will be the first major car company bringing electric cars back to the roads of Los Angeles and the New York metro area, with 500 people selected to drive them, I didn’t take much convincing. Sure, I’m feeling the irony of spending years cheerleading for plug-in vehicles but having a (gasoline) Saturn in my driveway- and sure, I’ve fairly openly challenged most of the car guys I know to see which company might be first to help me remedy that…but I still want to know what’s behind door #3 before I commit to it, right?
Usually that’s the case. But I knew going in all I really needed to about the Mini E, even before BMW released the specs- and that was that a little company tucked in the foothills of northern Los Angeles was doing the drivetrain. AC Propulsion, or “ACP” to fans, has left its fingerprints on most performance-oriented electric cars in the last twenty years, among them the EV1, Fetish, Wrightspeed and yes- Tesla. It pays the rent by converting unassuming, boxy Scion xB’s into asphalt-eating sleepers that send Mustangs back to the kids’ table. So I knew that even if the Mini E wasn’t designed to set records, it was going to be a fun little car. Still, I figured that I ought to at least drive it before I sign on the dotted line, should I be chosen- and certainly before I write about it here. So I called Tom Gage, President of ACP, and invited him to lunch…I even offered to drive.
Based on early descriptions, I expected the Mini E to be the dorkiest-looking thing on four wheels. The entire fleet will come in one color, a dark metallic silver adorned with- I kid you not- bright yellow graphic plugs on the roof and body panels. The interior is carbon-colored leather and cloth, with the same yellow accents. Not exactly a lust-inspiring combination. But in person, this bi-polar personality of the “I’m serious about saving the world” darker tones with the pure “hey, wanna go play?” brightness actually works- the Mini E looks as stubbornly optimistic as the people who will drive it.
The driving experience is as fun as I expected- like a puppy, the Mini EV has moments of being unsure of itself, but it seems perpetually ready for adventure. It’s nearly 600 pounds heavier than its gasoline counterpart thanks to a 35kWh battery pack (that little addition also takes the car from 4 seats to 2), but the weight is low and centered across the rear axle and the suspension fortified, so it’ll take a hard corner without the back end getting squirrelly. The 150kW (204 horsepower) AC motor more than compensates for the extra weight, and while it rates a respectable-but-not-mind-blowing 8.5 seconds from 0-60, an abundance of torque makes it quick off the line. Its top speed of 95mph is faster than you’ll be able to drive in either LA or New York. My only technical complaint is that the accelerator is squishier than a 5 year-old’s sneakers after a puddle jump- but once firmly engaged, the watermelon-sized power plant is downright enthusiastic. The Mini E also features the regenerative braking that we expect from electric drivetrains; letting off the accelerator slows the vehicle and feeds energy back into the batteries. However, the “regen” is much stronger in the Mini E than other hybrids and plug-in cars, so there’s little need to actually touch the brake pedal at all. Adjusting the aforementioned travel in the accelerator will also allow more subtle control of this blend between stop and go, but it’s still deeply satisfying, especially for those of us who still drive manual trans.
As impressive as the car is, there is a bit of overpromising on BMW’s part: the 156-mile advertised range “under ideal conditions” will realistically be closer to 100. (For some reason, most automakers fall prey to this temptation to err on the idealistic side in the one place they shouldn’t.) Charging time, optimistically rated at 3 hours on a 48-amp circuit, is closer to 6-8 hours on a regular 240-volt circuit- but since most people charge at night anyhow, the difference will be transparent to the drivers whose cars will still be full in the morning.
The Mini E will lease for $850/month for 1 year, with no option to purchase- it’s an experiment, after all. (While that price does include maintenance and collision insurance, it’s far more than I would reasonably pay to solve my little irony problem, though I rationalize it as a great demo car for my foundation’s educational work.) And while cheeky, the application was a bit like an automotive Rorschach test; it makes the much-maligned process of getting an EV1 look simple. Above all, BMW clearly wants to make sure I’ll willingly give this car back at the end of the year-so much so that I’m asked to confirm that fact at least three times in the hour-long survey that also wants to know my three favorite inventors and exactly which social networks I’m a member of. It’s an intriguing intersection of California earnestness and elitist German attitude- they overthink it a bit, but not surprisingly there are an abundance of people game for the process.
At the end of my drive in the Mini E, I was reminded of another aspect of puppies employed my marketing folk everywhere: you let someone play with one, and they never want to give it back. And I didn’t- it’s a compelling car, and the program offers great opportunity for BMW to gain both engineering learning and ambassadors for the technology and the brand. And I’m happy to help with both- but right now, I just want to go on another adventure.