The Mini has gone electric – and CAR is first behind the battery car's wheel. BMW has built a batch of 500 Mini Es that will be leased to American customers. It’s a normal Mini but with an electric engine up front and a lithium ion battery where you would usually find the back seat. BMW says it is step one in a research programme to garner more information on the real-world feasibility of plug-in electric cars. But it is also a thoroughly engineered vehicle – 95mph top speed meets 150-mile range, 0-62mph in 8.5 seconds meets 2.5 hours recharge time.
So it’s rather more sophisticated than a G-Wiz?
You could say that… It’s about as close to a G-Wiz as a Ford Focus is to a Model T. It’s more accelerative than a normal Mini Cooper or a Cooper D and feels livelier. Electric engines can produce maximum torque instantly, and the Mini E leaps forward with astonishing eagerness. The only downside is more torque steer than you’d get from a petrol- or diesel-powered Mini, as the front tyres grapple for traction.
This brisk performance shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. The electric engine produces 204bhp, comfortably more than a Cooper S’s 175bhp. Is this the future of hot hatches?
The Mini E also exceeds US safety standards, so it is also the safest small electric car yet built. Recharge time for the lithium ion battery – all 5088 cells of it – depends on the voltage and amperage of the electricity grid, but with UK-style 240-volts and a BMW-supplied wallbox to boost amperage, it would be about two-and-a-half hours.
So is it like a normal Mini to drive?
Yes, only easier. As with a normal Mini, you start the engine by inserting the rounded key and pushing the starter button. The battery power gauge in front of you (replacing the usual Mini rev counter) jumps into action. The engine is primed and ready to go – but remains silent. The auto-style gear selector has a simple P-R-N-D single plane. Choose Drive, push the accelerator pedal and you’re away. You glide off in total silence apart from the distant whoosh of tyre noise and just a whisper of engine whine.
There is no gearshift or clutch to worry about. As electric engines have such wide torque bands – the Mini E’s engine cuts out at 12,500rpm and the effective torque band is all 12,500 of those revs – so there is no need for a stepped transmission. A single speed is perfectly adequate.
Sounds impressive. What about the Mini E's handling and ride?
That big lithium ion battery adds to the car’s weight. The Mini E tips the scales at 3220lb – a Cooper weighs 2500lb – but the extra weight actually helps the ride. You could almost call it supple. The downside is slightly more ponderous handling yet it’s still agile and entertaining enough.
It’s fun to drive. Throttle response is terrifically sharp, helped by the almost instant torque hit. And drivetrain refinement is other-wordly – there is total smoothness and silence. It makes a Rolls-Royce sound like a clapped-out old Chevy.
The only criticism of the drivetrain is the pronounced engine braking as soon as you back off the throttle. There is no ‘glide’ on a trailing throttle. Back off, and the electric engine acts as a generator, slowing the car as it helps to capture kinetic energy and recharge the battery. In fact, in most cases you don’t even need to use the brakes. Back off, and you’ll soon come to a halt.
Will BMW will mass produce it? The Mini E is clearly a logical extension to the Mini range
BMW is coy about mass production. It says the lithium ion battery is currently too expensive. It will only say that there is likely to be a BMW plug-in electric vehicle on sale ‘within five years’.
It’s a shame we have to wait so long. This car feels good enough to go on general sale, and succeed, right now. The loss of rear seats is a pain, but otherwise there is plenty to commend.