First Drive: Mini E electric car mini greenreviews first drives
2010 Mini E. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Greg Wilson

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Mini E Electric car

Los Angeles, California – The Mini E electric car is not yet for sale to the general public, but BMW appears to be serious about bringing it to market: it is currently seeking about 500 drivers in New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles who want to lease a Mini E for US$850/month for one year. The goal is to find out how the Mini E performs in different climates and “real-world” driving environments. The Mini E’s lithium-ion battery pack can be recharged in as little as two and a half hours with a 240-volt/60-amp charger, and it has a driving range of approximately 240 km (150 miles) before it needs to be recharged.

BMW/Mini isn’t the only company developing a pure electric car right now (as distinguished from a gas-electric hybrid). Smart has a fleet of electric Fortwos running around London, England in a similar trial and is expected to start selling them in 2010. Mitsubishi will begin selling its iMiEV subcompact electric car in Japan next year with future plans for North America. Subaru has a couple of R1e electric cars on trial in New York and another G4e electric car in the wings. Toyota has announced plans for a small electric car by 2010. Nissan/Renault has stated they are committed to mass-producing electric cars by 2012. And Mercedes recently announced plans for a production EV by 2010 as has Volkswagen.

First Drive: Mini E electric car mini greenreviews first drives
2010 Mini E. Click image to enlarge

On the domestic front, the American firm of Tesla has successfully introduced its $100,000 electric sports car and is working on a new four-door sports sedan called the Model S. Ford has announced a Ford Focus electric car by 2012 and Chrysler has a running prototype sports car, the Dodge Zeo. As well, Ford, GM, and Toyota have all committed to building plug-in hybrids, including the Chevy Volt, an electric car with a small generator to charge the battery.

This renewed interest in electric cars by major automobile manufacturers was initially motivated by environmental concerns and the high cost of fuel, but recently, electric cars and gas-electric hybrids have taken on a new role as saviours of the American automobile industry, and perhaps the import industry as well. It’s uncertain however whether consumers will embrace green cars in a way that keeps automobile manufacturers profitable. They haven’t so far.

Still, with advances in battery technology and electronic controls, it’s now possible for vehicle manufacturers to produce electric cars that are more palatable for consumers who have demonstrated they don’t want to give up the performance, comfort and value that they’re used to.

First Drive: Mini E electric car mini greenreviews first drives
2010 Mini E. Click image to enlarge

One of the first electric cars on the market (from a major automobile manufacturer) is likely to be the Mini E, a pure electric car that appears, to this writer, to be almost production-ready. I was one of many journalists at the Los Angeles auto show last month who were given an opportunity to take one of these out on the streets of downtown L.A. for a 45-minute test drive.

Apart from its unique grey and yellow paint scheme, large ‘Mini E’ logos, and smaller ‘E’ logos that resemble a wall plug, the most interesting external feature of the Mini E is the charging outlet behind the fuel door. This special plug allows a 110 or 240-volt charge for its 380-volt lithium-ion battery. BMW has supplied its lease test drivers with a special 240-volt/60-amp charging apparatus in their home garages in order to re-charge the Mini E in 2.5 hours. With a regular 115-volt house current, it takes 24 hours to charge the battery. Keep in mind that charging times diminish according to the charge remaining in the battery.

The other distinguishing external characteristic of the Mini E is the complete absence of a tailpipe: zero emissions, zero tailpipe.

First Drive: Mini E electric car mini greenreviews first drives
First Drive: Mini E electric car mini greenreviews first drives
2010 Mini E. Click image to enlarge

Inside the Mini E, a black cloth interior with bright yellow dash and door trim harmonizes with the exterior look. A round gauge on top of the steering column shows the amount of charge left in the battery, and a small display in the central speedometer indicates the amount of power being used at any given time.

But hold on, where’s the back seat? Ah, yes. It’s been replaced by the large lithium-ion battery, which is in fact a battery pack made up of 5,088 cells grouped into 48 modules packaged into three battery elements. The Mini E is a definitely a two-seater car, with a small cargo area behind the battery. This arrangement considerably reduces the Mini’s practicality, but an engineer whispered to me that BMW is working on a smaller battery that will take up less space in the cabin.

The current lithium-ion battery pack has a maximum capacity of 35 kilowatt hours (kWh) and transmits energy to the electric motor as direct current at 380 volts. The battery pack weighs 260 kg (573 lbs) and the whole car weighs 1,465 kilograms (3,230 lb). That’s considerably heavier than the regular Mini Cooper at 1195 kg (2634 lbs).

So you would think that the Mini E would be slower than the regular Cooper. Wrong! Its official 0 to 100 km/h time is 8.5 seconds, compared to 10.4 seconds for the 118-hp Cooper with an automatic transmission. Even more significant is the Mini E’s torque. Maximum torque of 162 lb-ft is available right away, so the Mini E shoots off the line and is very responsive in stop-and-go city driving situations. It’s probably faster from 0 to 50 km/h than the regular Cooper.

The transmission has two positions: Park and Drive. It’s basically got one gear, but it doesn’t “slip” like a CVT. Acceleration is clean and linear and there’s no lurching or bumping – it’s very smooth.

First Drive: Mini E electric car mini greenreviews first drives
First Drive: Mini E electric car mini greenreviews first drives
2010 Mini E. Click image to enlarge

One thing that impressed me was the quietness of the electric motor. Other hybrids and electric cars I’ve driven emit a noticeable whine from the electric motor when accelerating or coasting to a stop. The Mini E is much quieter, and I found this very relaxing as a driver. One day we will all wonder how people put up with the overpowering racket of vehicle and motorcycle engines in city traffic. Vive la tranquillite!

Despite being 270 kg heavier than the Mini Cooper, the E has a fairly comfortable ride over L.A.’s downtown concrete pavement cracks (doubtless left there by the last earthquake). The electrically-assisted steering, while firm, requires minimal effort to parallel-park, and the Mini E’s tight turning diameter of 10.7 metres is the same as the regular Mini Cooper.

The Mini E’s four wheel disc brakes incorporate a regenerative braking system to capture energy while coasting or braking to recharge the battery. This feels like the brakes are dragging when you release your foot from the accelerator. The Mini E doesn’t coast freely like most cars. I found myself keeping my right foot on the gas pedal much longer before braking. I didn’t find this dangerous, but it’s an unusual sensation and takes a while to get used to.

The cost of electricity for the Mini E should be considerably less than the cost of gasoline for a Mini Cooper. BMW estimates that a full recharge will draw a maximum of 28 kilowatt hours from the power grid. At an average of 15 cents per kilowatt hour, the cost would be $1.80 for every 100 kilometres driven. Compare this to a Mini Cooper (automatic) with EPA city/highway fuel economy of 9.4/6.9 L/100 km at $1.00/litre, and it would cost $9.40 to travel 100 kilometres in the city and $6.90 on the highway. And because electric drive-trains are not as complicated as internal combustion engines, their maintenance costs are reputed to be lower.

First Drive: Mini E electric car mini greenreviews first drives
First Drive: Mini E electric car mini greenreviews first drives
2010 Mini E. Click image to enlarge

The Mini E is well on its way to becoming a mass-produced electric car. BMW has already announced it has passed its own crash tests designed to simulate official government crash tests. Though the Mini E’s range is about half that of a normal Mini Cooper, it is sufficient for most daily commutes. And it retains most of the comfort features of a traditional Mini: a/c, power windows, power locks, and premium stereo. If BMW can reduce the battery size to allow a rear seat and a decent trunk, and keep the price under CAN$35,000, they’ll probably do well in Canada.

But it will be up to the government and electricity suppliers to build a network of electric recharging stations to allow electric car owners to travel more than 120 km from home. Recently, the state of Hawaii and the city of San Francisco pledged to do this in partnership with a California company called Better Place. Recharging stations are not restricted to gas stations: they can be at malls, on city streets, parking lots, rest stops, hotels, restaurants, etc.

Of course, in order to achieve a clean “well to wheels” environmental impact, electricity should be generated by hydro-electric power, wind turbines, water turbines, solar or nuclear power rather than coal, gas or oil-fired powerplants. This will require a serious investment by governments and corporations, but getting drivers into electric cars in the first place may be a good first step in driving a greener societal agenda.

Specifications: 2009 Mini Cooper vs. Mini E
Mini Cooper (6-spd auto)
Mini E
Seating capacity
Four
Two
Cargo capacity
160 to 680 litres (5.6-24 cu. ft.)
60 litres (2.1 cu. ft.)
Motor
1.6-litre four cylinder gas
Electric motor
Energy Storage
50-litre gas tank
380V Lithium-ion battery
Charge time
N/A
2.5 hrs (240 volt/60 amp)
Energy consumption
EPA city/hwy 9.4/6.9 L/100 km
28 kWh
Horsepower
118
204 (150 kW)
Torque
160 Nm (118 lb-ft)
220 Nm (162 lb-ft)
Driving range (km)
532-725 (330-450 miles)
240 km (150 miles)
0-100 km/h
10.4 seconds (automatic)
8.5 seconds
Top speed
203 km/h (126 mph)
152 km/h (95 mph)
Turning circle
10.7 metres (35 ft.)
10.7 metres (35 ft.)
Curb weight
1195 kg (2634 lbs)
1,465 kilograms (3,230 lb)
Manufacturer’s web site
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