BMW Recalls Half its ActiveEs

By · February 01, 2013

The BMW ActiveE

The ActiveE gets around. This one was parked on the street in Southport, Connecticut. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On January 17, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recalled half of the 700 lease-only BMW ActiveE electric cars on American roads, citing a bad seal around the drivetrain housing that can cause grease to leak, prematurely wear the gear shaft that transfers power from the motor to the reduction gear transmission. The possible consequence is “a sudden loss of vehicle propulsion,” increasing the risk of a crash.

The ActiveE was also recalled last summer for a fault that left it vulnerable to power steering failure. Owners appear patient, even though some have had repeat issues. The recalls don’t involve problems with batteries (much in the news with the Boeing Dreamliner failures), but that doesn’t mean that the ActiveE packs have been trouble-free.

BMW notes the issues, and spokesman Dave Buchko comments, "The field trial experience of the ActiveE is an integral part of the development of the drivetrain for the iBrand vehicles. We regret the inconvenience to customers who have joined us on this journey." The ActiveE shares much of its drivetrain with the i3 "megacity" vehicle, which rolls out late this year.

Many are Already Fixed

Tom Moloughney, a New Jersey-based ActiveE driver who also posts on this site, notes that his car isn’t on the recall list, because it was already fixed. He wrote about it here, long before the recall. “Many of the people that had the bad seal have already had the motor replaced with the new seal because they had a failure,” he said in an email. “I’d guess there are probably only about 100 to 150 left to be recalled and fixed.”

George Betak, an ActiveE driver in the Bay Area, has had his share of woes. In mid-March of last year he began experiencing charging problems. It was towed to Oxnard. A week after Betak got his car back last summer he encountered an “unrecoverable drivetrain error,” which led to another tow to Oxnard for a three-week stay. “They replaced all three traction batteries, motor and control electronics,” he said. In other words, pretty much everything.

Trial and Error

“It’s been working fine since then, with the occasional software glitch or two,” Betak said. He has a basic incompatibility problem with ChargePoint stations, which has yet to be addressed. In a workaround, he can sometimes clear the GFCI fault by unplugging and re-inserting the J1772 plug a few times. That doesn’t work with the Eaton stations he has at work.

But for one other owner, Bruce Becker of Connecticut, leasing an ActiveE has been a great experience, despite the recalls. "I love the car," he said. "I love the way it drives--it's quiet, it's powerful, and I'm more comfortable with it than I was with a conventional car."

Becker's recall experience is somewhat tempered by the company offering him loaner cars, including a 2013 3-Series and an X3. "This is a field trial," he said, "and BMW is learning from it. The service issues haven't been a real hardship, and I've never had any driving problems with the ActiveE. It's a very versatile car--I was even able to get a folding bike in the trunk."

If you have an ActiveE and haven’t heard from BMW, you can call (800)525-7417 or email NHTSA’s hotline is (888)327-4236, or visit here.


· · 5 years ago

This highlights one of the advantages of BMW's strategy - take it slowly at first so you can work out the kinks while there are only a few vehicles on the road.

· · 5 years ago

This highlights one of the disadvantages of BMW's strategy - people get skeptical of their EV offering. I've to say, I'm a bit concerned about all these reports - since I'm considering i3 seriously.

· · 5 years ago

Point taken. The i3 isn't on my short list of near-future cars, so I would think about this differently than you. That said, I still don't think you have much to worry about; from what I hear, BMW is doing some serious analysis on the data they're getting from these cars. That will feed forward into their future products, including the i3.

· · 5 years ago

Or perhaps it highlights the disadvantage of wasting years on hydrogen combustion. Nissan has tens of thousands of EVs on the road now and haven't had an experience like this.

· · 5 years ago

Yeah all these companies seem to waste time on Hydrogen.... I haven't seen any real improvement on these critical issues:

1). Price of fuel around $7/ US Gallon equivalent. Not likely to decrease much since the Euphoria over Nuclear Power and GEN 3+ plants (and with it cheap H2 manufacture) has greatly decreased, especially since 11 March 2011, at Fukushima Daiichi, the Worst Industrial Accident of All Time, at least three times as bad as Chernobyl.

2). Short life of fuel cell.

3). Million dollar cost of the Car.

4). No current infrastructure to speak of, and with the first 3 items controlling, there isn't likely to be much.

Contrast this with electric cars..

A). Battery life slowly increasing

B). Battery cost slowly decreasing.

C). Millions and millions of places to plug in (most North American home owners and even some appartment dwellers have a 110 volt Nema 5-15 they can plug into, one of the benefits of standardization. Many easily available extension cords, (eg, 10/3 100 foot cords at the big box stores) facilitate this).

· · 5 years ago

@Marc Geller,

I disagree. Nissan has had a huge problem with their batteries in hot climates. If they had eased into EVs, the problem would have been more manageable and they could possibly fix it for the production model.

That said, I'm glad that Nissan did what they did. It was a huge boon to the EV industry. But I do feel bad for those negatively affected.

· · 5 years ago

I'm really not concerned with a bad gasket which this is really all about. It's a very small test program that's probably more about ZEV credits than anything else. These cars aren't going to be sold so I'm sure BMW did as little as possible to get them roadworthy and safe. I'm going to wait for the i3 and i8 before I pass judgement on how good BMW's plugin program is. I do agree with Brian though and think Nissan rushed to be first to market and under-engineered the battery cooling system. I think that has the potential to be more damaging to the EV movement than a couple hundred test cars that will be taken out of service in 12 months no matter how many issues they have (other than a fire!)

· · 5 years ago

@Brian Schwerdt, Check out the Plug In America LEAF Battery Study:

· · 5 years ago

@Marc Geller,

Thanks for the link! I will take the survey for them while I'm there.

I still believe that Nissan has had a large problem in hot climates. Part of it is technical - some batteries are losing capacity very quickly. Another part of it is the damage to the car's reputation. Some individuals have gone from avid Leaf supporters to being very vocal against Nissan. It was a combination of the existence of the problem and Nissan's poor handling of it. Contrast that to BMW's recall. By definition, a recall is the automaker telling its customers to bring the product in for a free fix to a known problem.

· · 5 years ago

Great article, Jim. Glad I was able to help with your research.

Brian, Marc: I'm driving an ActiveE now, and owned a LEAF before. Here is my perspective, for what it's worth.

I consider this recall to be one of the teething issues, and I'm under the impression that BMW is committed to their EV program, and their engineers have worked hard to identity, and eliminate this and other similar problems. I wouldn't judge the reliability of the i3 based on what we have seen with the ActiveE. That would go too far, since it's essentially an engineering mule.

That said, I'm not thrilled that there were so many issues, and agree that it does not bode well for the production car. Let's hope that BMW will get it right. The i3 itself, especially the interior, should be quite a feat, and could help set the direction for other OEMs. I, for one,hope that something good will come out of this. The EV market could certainly use another credible and interesting vehicle.

The LEAF on the other hand, was incredibly well executed for a first-gen production EV. Brilliant even. My gripes, if you could call it that, were: the range, 3 kW charging, and the extent and speed of battery degradation.

I think the problems centered around communications and marketing. Whether the car performed up to spec or not, is another matter.

I, like many others, have bought into the 100-mile range talk. What I have also heard was 80% remaining capacity in five years and 70% in ten years. What I got instead was about 80 miles of de-facto range, and 10% degradation after 1 1/2 years of ownership. This left me with 70% of the advertised range after relatively short period of time, and I don't even live in Phoenix.

The owners there experienced about 1.5 times the capacity loss folks in Southern California had, and about 3 to 4 times the loss Seattleites would see. Additionally, some of them claim that due to what seems like calibration and software errors, they lost disproportionate amount of range. They could only get about 70% of what their car used to do, when going from a full charge all the way to the low battery warning.

As to the PIA study: I agree, we all owe Tom a debt of gratitude for his great work. I suggested to him that ZIP codes be collected, because ambient temperature will likely be an important factor. I knew that from my prior work in the LEAF community. Additionally, I proposed to solicit subjective range information as well. This is important, because there likely are not enough bar losers out there to give us enough insight into the state of the battery across different geographies.

I believe that the current data points to as many as 10% bar losers within the first two years of ownership. Whether that's an acceptable number or not is for everyone to decide for themselves. The study also shows that about 20% of LEAF owners report noticeable loss of range, based on subjective observation. This number includes the bar loser group, obviously.

While the vast majority of owners will likely do well, this data set demonstrates that loss of range might be a real problem, and not something imagined, or a statistical artifact perhaps.

I hope this helps.

· · 5 years ago


Thanks for the thorough summary. I too bought into the 100-mile range, although the 73 mile EPA rating was released long before the car was available in my area, so I was disappointed but aware. The other disappointment is the cold weather performance. I had no idea that I would not be able to get 50 miles out of the car in the winter. Right now, I'm getting about 40-45 miles from 100% to low battery warning. That's less than 50% of the originally advertised range. That has a dramatic affect on the useability of the car.

· · 5 years ago

I have been driving this car for a year and cannot complain. The car is a pleasure to drive. Yes there have been a few times where the service time is extended to deal with these issues, but it has been easy to schedule with the local dealer and I have always been provided a loaner car. I have been impressed with BMW's approach. It's not just a test of the cars and the parts, but a way to get the entire system (from salespeople to service people) acclimated to dealing with EV's. I am definately interested in purchasing one of the new vehicles, and partly because they have worked on understanding what problems might come up and how to deal with them through a 2 year test. I wish that someone would figure out how to get a the lithium air cell battery into production...

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