First Drive: BMW ActiveE Electric Coupe

By · October 14, 2011

Tom Moloughney and BMW ActiveE

Me and my next electric BMW.

This week, I participated in the BMW ActiveE press event at BMW headquarters in Munich. It was the first time anyone outside BMW drove the second electric car produced out of project i—and the final test vehicle before BMW offers its first electric car, the 2013 BMW i3.

The launch of the ActiveE program will coincide with the end of the MINI-E program in December. BMW planned it that way so those of us in the MINI-E program could transition directly into an ActiveE when we return our MINI-Es. BMW is making about 1,100 ActiveEs and 700 of them are destined for the US.

They will be offered in a 24-month, closed-end lease for $2,250 down and $499.00 per month. The MINI-E drivers that will lease an ActiveE—I’m getting one for sure—will have an AeroVironment EVSE installed at their houses for free, while people that are new to the BMW EV lease program will have to pay for it. The price has not yet been announced. The car will only be available in New York, New Jersey, greater Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento and Boston.

BMW ActiveE

Photos by Tom Moloughney. All rights reserved.

When I arrived at the Munich event there were about 40 ActiveEs lined up for us to drive on a set course that was programmed into the navigation systems of the cars. We were all asked to stay on the 35-kilometer route, which would take us to BMW research & development center, the FIZ. I “accidentally” strayed a bit off course and finished with 40 km on the odometer.

Driving Impressions

BMW says the ActiveE will go 0-60 in under 9 seconds, and that felt about right. It has 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft torque, enough to provide a spirited drive, but it is a bit slower than the MINI-E due to additional weight. The ActiveE tips the scaled at 4,000 pounds which is about 750 pounds bulkier than the MINI-E.

BMW ActiveE
BMW ActiveE

BMW broke up the battery pack into three different blocks: one under the hood, one in the transmission tunnel and one behind the rear seats over the rear axel. This approach achieved close to a 50/50 weight distribution, and the handling definitely benefited. It definitely didn’t feel like I was driving a 4,000-pound coupe. It was nimble and took corners with ease.

BMW added new features to the ActiveE not found in the MINI-E. The most important one in my opinion: active thermal conditioning. This is one feature I am really anxious to test out when I get my ActiveE. It’s difficult to see the effects based only on a 40 km drive, but I did notice that during drive, the battery temperature didn’t vary more than 1 degree Celsius, rising from 22 to 23 by the time I arrived. That same drive would have certainly raised my MINI-E’s battery temperature by 8 to 10 degrees F.

Hitting the Coast

The Active E has another new feature, which as far as I know no other EV has. It’s called “glide mode.” This feature is BMW’s direct response to feedback from MINI-E drivers. I was one of the people that commented that while I love the strong regen of the MINI-E, there needs to be a way to deactivate it while driving at highway speeds so you can coast. While driving the MINI-E you needed to keep you foot pressed to the accelerator without backing off because the regen immediately activates. It wasn’t hard to do, but I always thought there had to be a way to improve this and allow the car to coast a bit. BMW’s answer was the Glide Mode.

While driving, if you back off the accelerator a bit, the car will coast and the regen will not activate unless you back off even further. I really didn’t have much time to test it out because most of the time I was on the autobahn, I wasn’t thinking about coasting. I was testing out the torque as I accelerated and slowed down repeatedly. However I did manage to use the glide mode a couple times and it seemed to work as BMW intended.

Activating the ActiveE's Eco Pro mode

Activating the ActiveE's Eco Pro mode.

There is also an Eco Pro mode which is activated by a button on the center console right behind the shifter. When activated, it reduces the power the motor, and provides less energy to heating and cooling systems. This is meant to extend the range on trips when you need every mile. I admit I didn’t use it so I don’t know how well it works. My short time driving the car wasn’t going to be testing Eco Pro mode. There will be plenty of time to do that when I have my own ActiveE starting in December.

The regenerative braking is less aggressive than the one on the MINI-E, but that’s not to say it isn’t strong. In fact, I’ve driven LEAFs, Volts and Roadsters—and the ActiveE’s regenerative braking is stronger than all of them. (The Tesla Roadster comes closest.) BMW estimates it will increase the car’s range as much as 20 percent, if properly used.

I did notice that the ActiveE's braking is smoother than the MINI-E’s. That’s probably because BMW dialed back the initial strength on the regen so it grabs more gradually than the MINI-E does. You probably won’t hear journalists compare the regen to a parachute being deployed like they did when the MINI-E first came out, but that doesn’t mean it’s not strong and effective. You can definitely drive the car with one pedal, just like I do the MINI-E.

Charging at 7.7 kW

BMW partnered with AeroVironment to provide home charging equipment. The car will charge at 32 amps, and a robust 7.7 kW—which will charge a depleted battery in about four-and-a-half hours. It will also be able to charge at 110 volts with an emergency portable cable. The ActiveE will not have the ability to charge at DC quick charge stations. I asked BMW representative about quick charging options for the i3. The only answer I could get was that they are monitoring the situation on the adoption of a standard Level 3 charging plug, which is not yet finalized.

Conclusion: Better And Getting Even Mo' Better

The ActiveE is a very competent EV. It’s fun to drive, and offered brisk, linear acceleration. The interior is very comfortable and offers creature comforts like heated white leather seats with blue stitching, clean analog gauges, and a center stack info system that has all the EV information/navigation I was looking for. Having back seats and a trunk will be a new experience for me after driving the MINI-E—which has neither—for the past 30 months.

The ActiveE is the final test before BMW sells the i3, and just about all the components that are in the ActiveE—like the newly developed electric motor, power electronics and battery cells—will be used in the i3. The ActiveE's battery cells, made by SB-Limotive, are lithium-ion cells with a nickel-manganese-cobalt chemistry that BMW believes have the best energy density currently available today.

Tom Moloughney and BMW ActiveE

As nice as the ActiveE seems, it’s still a converted ICE platform and BMW doesn’t want to go that route with its EVs. They believe the proper way to go is a purpose-built car, made from the ground up as an EV. It may take a bit longer to bring it to market, but they believe the end result will be worth it. We’ll have to wait about two years to find out. Until then, I’ll be more than happy to drive an ActiveE.

There is one thing I keep thinking about though. That’s what BMW employee Tobias Hahn told us right before we were handed the keys. Referring to the i3, he said, "While you are driving the ActiveE, I want you to imagine this exact same powertrain in a car that weighs 600 kilos (1,300lbs) less." Now, that should be interesting.

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