One step at a time—slowly but surely—BMW is developing the knowledge and capacity to deliver the i3, a small all-electric car, by 2013. It started in 2009, when the company began leasing an electric two-passenger version of the Mini Cooper to about 600 drivers in California, New York, and New Jersey. That program was designed to help BMW learn about real-world driving and charging experiences.
In the first half of 2012, 700 consumers in a few Northeast and West Coast cities put down $2,250 and are now paying $499 a month for a two-year lease. (The ActiveE is not available for purchase.) Don’t expect to squeeze into this group of 700. There simply aren’t any left, and even EV insiders can’t get one. Only 1,100 ActiveE’s will be produced globally.
The ActiveE is allowing the company to further refine the requirements for a line of large-volume future electric cars. BMW executives call the ActiveE a “technology shakedown.” At one point, BMW was referring to its long research and development effort as the “Megacity” project—a named based on the idea of targeting urban commuters in a variety of ways, including EVs, plug-in hybrids, car sharing, parking services, and other interactive applications. All of these things now appear to fall under BMW’s concept of an “i” series of vehicles. The first two vehicles will be the i3, a small all-electric car, and the extravagant $100,000 i8 plug-in hybrid supercar. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: for 2012 and 2013, the focus is the ActiveE.
The ActiveE puts out 125 kilowatts (170 horsepower), a similar amount of power as found on other 1-series Bimmers. The ActiveE’s 32-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack is slightly smaller than the Mini E’s. Aggressive driving and cold weather conditions reduced the Mini E’s range by 20 or 30 miles according to multiple reports from drivers. That’s exactly the kind of information that BMW needed to gather from its test drivers. BMW took that key finding from the Mini E program, and modified the ActiveE by using liquid cooling to control temperature range. That strategy maintains driving range despite cold weather. In my week with the vehicle (in mild weather, granted), I consistently managed between 80 and 90 miles of range.
Using the Ecopro setting—which dials back the throttle response, but not to a compromising degree—I went 101 miles with 9 percent of the battery charge remaining, according to the dashboard monitor. Plugged into 240-volt charging equipment , the on-board 7.7-kilowatt charger provides an empty-to-full charge in about four hours.
Tom Moloughney, the ActiveE’s first leaseholder and a contributor to PluginCars.com, drove one around the streets of Berlin during a first-drive event in Germany. “It’s definitely a smoother drive than the MiniE, which I love but it still feels more like the conversion it is than a production-series electric vehicle. The ActiveE really comes across as a car that was engineered in-house by a major manufacturer.”
Acceleration from a stop to 60 miles per hour comes in an unremarkable 8.5 seconds, but the feel behind the wheel—especially the swift surges from 0 to 30 mph., and from 50 to 80—is delightful. The steering response is everything you would expect from a BMW. The interior is quintessential BMW, with tasteful materials, austere but useful displays for information like the battery state-of-charge and attention to detail that extends to each meticulous stitch in the leather upholstery.
Unlike the spartan Mini E, the ActiveE has all kind of bonus features, including heated leather seats, navigation system, cruise control, and satellite radio.
The most remarkable feature carried over from the Mini E to the ActiveE is the very assertive regenerative braking, which applies strong deceleration as soon as you lift your foot off the accelerator. It’s hard to convince the uninitiated about the benefits of one-pedal driving. You can read about it. But suffice it to say that the BMW ActiveE nails the execution of this strategy. After a week with the vehicle, I’m a convert.
p>Unlike the Mini E, the ActiveE is going to be field-testing many of the actual components that will be used in its 2013 BMW i3. Here’s what we know about that vehicle: its body will mostly be made of lightweight carbon fiber, and therefore weight about 1,300 pounds less than the ActiveE. The i3 will have more legroom and four doors. BMW will reduce the size of the battery pack to about 20 kilowatt-hours, from the ActiveE’s 32, while still providing 100 miles of range. Using the ActiveE’s drivetrain and 170-horsepower motor, the much lighter i3 should be an extraordinary ride. I have a nagging worry that the ActiveE’s appeal is its classic BMW styling and handling, and the i3 will seem too weird in appearance or feel from behind the wheel. I can’t wait to find out if that's true, or if BMW pours its experience with the ActiveE into the i3, turning out the the ultimate electric driving machine in 2013 or 2014.