Global Economics

Test-Driving the Electric Mini


Your smile comes from realizing that driving BMW's quiet, peppy Mini E is not only environmentally friendly. It's also a lot of fun

I was wearing what the BMW engineers call the "EV Smile." It's what happens to people when they first drive an electric-powered vehicle. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is wearing the same slightly woozy grin in photos taken after he test-drove the battery-powered Mini E in the U.S. last year. And I had it after about an hour behind the wheel of the Mini E near BMW (BMWG.DE) headquarters in Munich.

The EV Smile comes from the realization that driving an electric vehicle is not only environmentally friendly, it's also lots of fun. Of the many challenges facing mass production of all-electric vehicles, driving pleasure is not one of them. In fact, putting aside the range limitations, electric cars offer a lot of advantages over gasoline and diesel engines.

Start with acceleration. BMW engineer Peter Krams, project manager for development of the electric Minis now being delivered to 500 select customers in the New York and Los Angeles metro areas, took the wheel when we first pulled away from company headquarters. As he merged into traffic and stepped on the accelerator, the pickup was enough to pin me decisively against the passenger seat. The electric Mini goes from 0 to 60 mph in less than 8.5 seconds, not quite as fast as the most powerful gasoline-powered Mini but still plenty quick. The car definitely has the trademark Mini go-cart feel BMW is so proud of.

No Hesitation

But there's more to it than that. When I got behind the wheel 10 minutes later, what struck me was the response of the electric motor. Unlike gasoline or diesel engines, electric motors deliver maximum power almost instantly. In fact, BMW engineers had to dampen the acceleration a bit to avoid overstressing the drive shaft designed for a conventional engine.

Moreover, the acceleration is extraordinarily smooth. Because of the properties of electric motors, the Mini E has just one gear, with a ratio similar to fifth gear in a normal car. Unlike a gasoline engine, the electric motor can remain connected directly to the drive shaft at all times. When you stop, the motor simply stops turning. There's no need for a clutch or a transmission. That means there is also no need to change gears. The Mini E is smoother even than an automatic. There is none of the slight hesitation you typically get when an automatic transmission upshifts.

It wouldn't be accurate to say the electric Mini is noiseless. You hear the wind rushing around the car body, the noise of the tires rolling over the pavement, and a slight whining of the electric motor. The heavily insulated backseat of a Rolls-Royce (another BMW brand) might be slightly quieter, but with a V-12 engine and weighing 5,500 pounds, it's also somewhat less environment-friendly.

In any case, electric cars are very quiet. So much so that people such as electric-car entrepreneur Shai Agassi, the former SAP executive, have predicted that owners of EV's will equip their vehicles with custom-recorded motor noises, the same way that people download ringtones for their mobile phones.

Sense of Well-Being

After driving the Mini E, I disagree. It's better to savor the quiet, or listen to the radio, which no longer has to compete with the motor to be heard. "One enjoys the stillness," says Krams, who has been driving a Mini E daily since September. "You're more aware of what's going on outside the car." The absence of any exhaust or fuel smell adds to the sense of well-being.

The other thing that strikes you about an electric car is how simple it is to drive. The Mini E is rigged to recoup energy when you slow down. What that means is that simply taking your foot off the pedal causes the car to slow markedly. Once you get used to the car, it's rarely necessary to brake. No shifting, no braking—all you do is steer and work the accelerator pedal.

After about an hour behind the wheel, I was ready to make a down payment. But of course it's not that easy. BMW has built about 600 Mini E's, which makes it much more than a prototype. But BMW does not plan mass production. Instead, the company is working on a completely new vehicle under the auspices of Project i, a team of 80 developers housed at BMW's Munich factory.

The purpose of the Mini E is to subject the whole concept of electric vehicles to the harsh reality of the New Jersey Turnpike, the Cross Bronx Expressway, or the Ventura Freeway. Theoretically, the car can go 150 miles on a charge, but actual range will depend on individual driving habits and other factors such as the weather. (Batteries don't work as well in extreme cold.) BMW also wants to find out how much service Mini E drivers will need—probably not much, since the cars don't even need an oil change. But no one knows for sure.

$40,000 Sticker Price?

BMW is committing substantial resources to electric propulsion—despite a slump in sales that delivered an unexpected $1.2 billion loss in the fourth quarter of 2008. BMW executives and engineers also are careful to point out that significant hurdles remain before such cars are available to most of us. Chief among the obstacles is the price of batteries, which with current technology would lead to a car costing close to $40,000. (Drivers chosen for the Mini E project in the U.S. are paying $850 a month to lease the cars.)

There are other hurdles that don't always occur to the more starry-eyed EV dreamers, such as the need for a completely new service network. Electric vehicles require mechanics trained in dealing with dangerous high-voltage components. BMW is establishing service centers in the New York and LA metro areas for its Mini E customers, but building a nationwide network would be a costly and time-consuming undertaking.

So mass-market electric vehicles are still probably at least five years off, maybe a decade. But that time frame could be speeded up if carmakers become convinced there's real demand. My prediction: Once word gets around how much fun it is to drive an electric car, demand will develop sooner than the industry thinks.


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