MINI E verdict

19 Nov, 2008 2:21pm Hauke Schrieber

Prepare for a shock! MINI has launched its first-ever electric car, and Auto Express has driven it.


It’s fitting that MINI, which can trace its roots back to the invention of the small city car, is now at the forefront of the creation of a new class of vehicles that will be equally as significant in the future.What’s more, the MINI E is given even greater relevance by the quality of its engineering, and by its ease of operation. While the challenge of charging the vehicle quickly has yet to be overcome to make this model as versatile as its petrol engined rivals, there is no doubt that the promise is there. With this machine, MINI has proved beyond a doubt that for small cars at least, the future really is electric.

MINI is on a charge! The British-based firm has made history by producing its first ever all-electric production model – and Auto Express has driven it.

The unlikely star of the Los Angeles Motor Show, it points the way to the zero-emissions car of tomorrow. It’s being made available in the US to 450 customers, who will run the experimental model for a year, at a monthly lease price of $850.

Mounted where the back seats would normally be are 5,088 AC Propulsion lithium-ion battery cells, similar to those in most mobile phones. That means this MINI weighs a hefty 1,465kg.

The system is similar, but not identical, to the set-up in the Lotus Elise-based Tesla sports car. And the battery provides a maximum driving range of 150 miles, a top speed of 95mph and a 0-60mph time of eight seconds – making the newcomer quicker than a standard MINI Cooper.

The 35kW/h battery takes only two hours to power up using BMW’s 50-amp charger, which will be fitted to the house or workplace of all MINI E test drivers at no extra charge. With an ordinary US 110V supply, that charging time stretches to a maximum of 28 hours – so you need to plan for longer trips.

The electric conversion effectively turns the MINI E into a two-seater, with an even smaller boot that can swallow a couple of briefcases. The dash gets a battery charge indicator and a power use meter in the speedo.

Starting takes about 10 seconds, as the electronics check the state of the battery and confirm the vehicle is working correctly. With 400 volts of direct current flying around, safety is paramount, and the bonnet is effectively sealed. Try to open it and the battery is isolated; you’ll need a BMW engineer to reconnect it.

There’s the faintest hum as the fans cool the battery pack behind you and the motor under the bonnet. When the dash lights confirm the car is ready, you simply put the gearlever in Drive and press the throttle.

The 201bhp motor responds immediately. The little MINI E takes off like a scalded cat, its tyres fighting the 220Nm of torque, and the steering wheel twisting in your hands. There’s a high-pitched whining from the motor, but otherwise the car is eerily silent and the main noise is that of the tyres on the road.

Lift off the throttle and the effect is even more marked, but in reverse. BMW’s engineers have chosen to apply all the regenerative braking when the throttle is off, rather than when the left pedal is pressed. This can be as much as 0.3g, which is harder than most in-town braking. For that reason, the tail-lights illuminate to warn following drivers that you are slowing quickly. It’s a weird sensation, and many owners will find they hop down the road before they get used to the on-off accelerator pedal.

The steering is heavy and, as it rides on modified Cooper S suspension, the ride is harsh. But this is a big step forward for BMW and MINI. In all, 500 cars have been built, and a trial will take place in Germany next year.

The MINI E is unlikely to come to Britain. But an insider says the firm is in talks with the Government with the aim of preparing the ground – as well as the charging infrastructure – for this and other electric cars. So, watch this space.

Rival: Fiat 500 Hybrid
All-electric version of the popular 500 isn’t far away. A 900cc two-cylinder petrol-electric hybrid is due next year, boasting 90mpg and CO2 emissions of less than 100g/km.

Key specs

* Engine: Electric motor with lithium-ion battery pack, 204bhp
* 0-60mph: 8.5 seconds
* Top Speed: 95mph
* Range: 150 miles
* Price: Lease only, $850 a month