Monterey, California with the BMW ActiveE — Certain people believe that, in a big global metropolis such as New York or London or Beijing, the fossil fuel-powered car is going the way of the steam-powered locomotive. At least some of those people must be working for BMW i, the sub-brand of the Munich-based manufacturer focused on sustainability and mobility, because they're taking this whole electric vehicle thing seriously - very seriously.
No, they still don't have an electric vehicle (EV) for sale to the general public, but they've been hard at work behind the scenes for years now to make that goal a reality. The Mini E, an all-electric version of the MINI Cooper, was the subject of a trial run by 500 early adopters in America and the UK starting in 2009. Two years later, these same customers were encouraged to trade in their MINIs for the BMW ActiveE, the next step in the company's electrification process. Having driven both cars, it's clear to see that improvements have been made.
The Mini E offered the same dynamic handling characteristics of the fossil-fuel-powered Cooper, combined with even quicker acceleration. When I first started out, I failed to notice that the speedometer was set to mph and not km/h; before clueing in, the MINI and I were rocketing along a rural road at well past the posted speed limit, working up absolutely no sweat at all.
Then I hit the regenerative brakes to get back on the right side of the law. Here was the real revelation: The braking system set the stage for honest-to-goodness, single-foot driving—the brakes were so powerful, you just had to back off on the accelerator pedal and the Mini E would come to a stop all by itself.
I’ve gone on record in saying that the Mini is the best-handling, most fun-to-drive and most style-conscious compact car in existence and the electrified version continues this trend. If not for the lack of trunk space or the disappearance of the back seat (both due to the large battery pack), the E would have received a straight-up ‘A’.
But that grade may have to be reserved for the BMW ActiveE—an electric version of the 1-Series Coupe—because the driving experience is just as refreshing, its battery is smaller and its back seat remains intact. The ActiveE provides similar range to the Mini E (160km) due to the fact that the new battery pack employs more powerful lithium-ion cells and is rated at 32kWh. The pack is built by an outfit called SB LiMotive, a partnership between Samsung and Bosch.
The motor powering the BMW ActiveE generates 125kW of power and 250Nm of torque, which is sufficient to see the weighty car move from a standing start in smart fashion. The manufacturer estimates that the run from 0-100km/h takes nine seconds flat. Based on the quick spin I took in the car, this seems like a very safe bet.
The experience under power is close to that of the Mini E, but there are differences. For one, the BMW ActiveE now has a gliding mode, which means that the regenerative braking system does not engage immediately when you lift off the gas if you’re travelling at highway speeds. Around town, the BMW can still be driven using just one pedal, but there’s a more moderate feel to the brakes—they don’t behave like a drag-race style parachute as they did with the Mini.
Another difference: The ActiveE has an Eco Pro mode, which turns down the juice on creature comforts such as the heated seats and air conditioning to preserve the battery. The car also provides advice on maintaining the optimum speed to extend your range and comes equipped with a standard navigation system that provides the speediest routes to public charging stations.
Charge times for the ActiveE are in line with those for other current EVs: It takes about 7-8 hours to replenish the battery pack using a 110-volt electrical outlet, 3-4 hours with a 220/240-volt home charging station and about 30 minutes with a public quick-charger.
As noted, the ActiveE is not available to the general public. But members of the test group were able to secure one of the 700 cars on a 24-month lease for US$499 per month and a down payment of US$2250. (This is about the same as it would cost to secure a petrol-powered BMW 1-Series Coupe in America.) The home charging station costs an additional US$2500, but most of the group would have already installed one to recharge the Mini E.
The BMW ActiveE represents the second stage in a three-phase process. The lessons learned from the Mini E and from this car will help to fuel a fully realized production vehicle that should have all the bugs removed—that vehicle is the BMW i3, which is due sometime in 2013.
There’s no question that BMW has taken a very methodical approach to the electrification: They’ve established a sub-brand and established comprehensive test sessions to gather customer feedback on their EV technology. Last year, they also invested US$100 million in a US carbon fibre plant; this facility will produce carbon fibre reinforced plastics (CFRP) that will be used to build the i3 and its supercar sibling, the i8.
To support these models, BMW has also created a New York-based venture capital firm, BMW i Ventures, with the sole purpose of investing in partnerships that will facilitate buy-in from the general public. Thus far, the firm has invested in MyCityWay, an urban exploration app, and ParkatmyHouse, a “driveway-sharing” app that is intended to help i drivers plug in when parked.
If you think these are just interesting pieces of trivia, you may not be ready for an EV. But if you consider it to be a powerful signal that change is fast approaching, a bigger charge from your driving experience may be just around the corner.