Friday, November 21, 2008

Quick Spin: 2010 Mini E

Electric cars are nothing new. Once the horseless chariots of upper class society women, they are now back en vogue thanks to a renewed interest in achieving zero-emissions, minimal-compromise driving. Enter the 2010 Mini E, an electrified Mini Cooper that will go on limited lease availability to select customers early next year.

First things first, the Mini E is not a mass-market electric car. Five hundred applicants mostly in Southern California and the greater New York City area - get your name in now - will be selected to lease Mini Es at $850 a month for a year. That fee includes all maintenance and an in-home charging system , as well as all the gasoline required to fuel the Mini E for the year (just checking to see if you are paying attention).

Under the Mini E’s hood is a 150kW (a little over 200 horsepower) electric motor that is “fueled” by a back seat-mounted rechargeable lithium-ion battery. A single-stage helical gearbox transfers the power to the front wheels. The Mini E’s suspension has been modified to compensate for the revised weight distribution - those batteries out back add a few pounds, but a careful diet cut the overall curb weight increase to around 100 lbs.

Aside from badging and stickers, there isn’t much outside to hint to drivers that your motoring is not consuming any gasoline. The fuel filler door is still there, except on this Mini it’s where you plug in a cable from the in-home charging system. Like any electric car, the Mini E emits only a high-pitched whine when it is running, so be careful sneaking up on your fellow shoppers in the Kroger parking lot.

Inside, the changes are more obvious. Your friends who argued over who got shoved in the back seat will now have to drive themselves since the Mini E’s huge battery packs take up the rear accommodations and most of the cargo area. There’s just enough room for a bag or two of groceries but nothing else in this minimized Mini. Don’t expect to take a cross country trip unless you can pack lightly and want to stop often for charges.

Speaking of charging, the Mini E goes up to 150 miles between charges, which take about two hours to complete. A full recharge takes about 28 kilowatt hours of electricity - about 5.4 miles per kWh.

Climb aboard and the Mini E feels like any automatic-transmission Mini Cooper, aside from a charge gauge where you’d normally find the tachometer, a power gauge where you’d normally see the fuel gauge and a distinct lack of whiny rear seat passengers. Those batteries back there are quiet, free of smell and you don’t even have to worry about asking for them to pitch in gas money.

Put the gear lever in drive, let off the brake and you won’t go anywhere, although you might roll a little if you’re not on flat ground. The Mini E’s gas pedal isn’t particularly linear in its operation, which will require a little getting used to for most drivers to avoid head-snapping acceleration. Hey, at least there’s only one passenger to worry about. Let off the gas and the Mini E will slow down quickly rather than slowly coast to a stop like in a conventional car. In this mode, the electric motor acts as a generator, recovering some kinetic energy and feeding it back to the battery. Because of this, Mini recommends using the deceleration feature as a brake to come to a stop.

With upwards of 200 horsepower on tap, the Mini E moves forward rapidly enough to induce some wheelspin and torque steer and, with no rev range to worry about, more power is instantaneous from any speed.

Braking is grabby and a little nonlinear, but is still better than in some inexpensive cars and even the Toyota Prius. Again, it takes some getting used to, but by the end of our short downtown Los Angeles driving circuit, we had it down to a science.

The Mini E is one of few cars that allows you to pull up next to a Prius, like the one with the personalized “LESS OIL” license plate we saw on our test drive, and smugly look down upon the gas-guzzling heathen behind the wheel. The Mini E uses no oil other than a few drops here and there for moving parts lubrication. Take that, Prius.

With a limited range and limited cargo capacity, the Mini E is a strictly in-town commuter car, and at that it excels. Handling is mostly on par with a standard Mini, though it’s possible to get the front end a little more squirrely here than in the gas version.

The future of the Mini E is the million dollar question, though. BMW and Mini executives are tight-lipped about the project, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see the lessons learned from this trial project applied to a larger, more utilitarian vehicle in the near future.

Words by Andrew Ganz. Photos by Mark Elias and Mini.

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