Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Test Drive With the All Electric BMW Mini E

Wanna know what really aggravates and frustrates me? The knowledge that major automobile manufacturers have the capability and technology to produce alternate energy vehicles TODAY. In fact, they have had this technology for years and years yet they stubbornly refuse to give us the goods. One of the most notable such cars was the EV1, which was a masterpiece that was ultimately sacked by General Motors. Well, here is another, the BMW Mini E. This car proves that auto manufacturers have the ability to make these cars yesterday, but lack the will to do so.

What will it take to force the auto companies to give us the choice to buy alternate energy vehicles?

From the Financial Times:

Truly viable battery-powered cars have been “just around the corner” for, let’s see, somewhere around a century. I remember my first go in one: a boxy Renault 10 saloon I’d been invited to drive through Calgary back in the late 1960s. It weighed almost twice as much as the standard car, but had the same brakes, suspension and steering. It took almost a city block to stop from 30mph and cornered with as much lean as Ellen MacArthur mistiming a tack in the angry Southern Ocean. The car, independently developed, was well-intentioned “clean” transport at a time when emissions concerns were nascent. But it was rubbish.

David Fishlock, the FT’s former science editor, has vivid memories of the tiny Enfield 800 city car he was asked to trial in the 1970s by the UK’s Central Electricity Generating Board. It almost got him arrested. But then, what would you do if a man knocked after dark on the door of your isolated Buckinghamshire cottage, holding a cable and plug and asking for electricity to get him home?

The two-seater Enfield was supposed to have a range of 40 miles. And so it did – as long as the road was clear for it to tootle along at 30mph, lights and heater weren’t on and it was warm outside.

Since then, I’ve witnessed improvements in battery-powered cars’ range and performance, but they’ve always fallen well short of offering a practical alternative to conventional cars. So I was sceptical when I jumped into BMW’s Mini E (for Electric) for an appraisal drive around the company’s hometown of Munich.

From the outside, this all-battery-powered Mini looks no different from petrol or diesel models. But then look inside, at the rear seats: there aren’t any. Instead, a raised, carpeted area houses 250kg of lithium-ion battery packs. To lose two seats to the cause of exhaust-free driving seems a big concession even before turning a wheel. Nor did wheel-turning sound promising, considering this version is almost 200kg heavier than its conventional counterparts.

I turned the key, watched all the dashboard lights come on and waited instinctively for the purr of whirring mechanical bits. Instead, silence. You just press the accelerator and go.

All kinds of colourful words leap to mind to describe the Mini’s progress away from standstill – most of them unsuitable for the FT. “Damn fast” will have to do. While maximum speed has been electronically limited to 95mph, at up to 30 or 40 mph, the Mini E is even quicker than the most potent petrol-powered Mini of all, the 135mph Cooper S. That’s thanks to the energy density characteristics of the battery pack. Its output of torque is 160lbs ft, close to the Cooper S’s 177lbs ft. Its 204 horsepower is 31 more than that of the Cooper S. And most crucially, all of the E’s torque is available the moment the throttle is touched, whereas, with a petrol engine, maximum torque has to be built up and isn’t reached until nearly 2,000rpm in the Cooper S. As for the E’s extra weight, upgraded suspension means it still corners with alacrity.

Range, then, seems to be the only potential problem remaining. BMW claims about 150 miles. That is no match for a conventional car, and there’s a further disadvantage in the long “refuelling” process: a full recharge from a domestic power socket would take a hopeless 23.6 hours. But the first 500 Mini Es to be built, all destined for 12 months of trial leasing to customers in the US, will come with a 48 amp garage wallbox, giving a full recharge in 2½ hours.

On those parameters, the Mini E shows a glimmer of being a practical proposition. US consumers paid an average 11 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity last year. A full charge of the Mini’s batteries requires 35 kWh, or less than $4. (In fact, the 500 early users get an all-inclusive lease package at $850 a month.)

I did my best to trash BMW’s range claims on the wintry streets of Munich and in the surrounding Bavarian countryside: flat out, stop-start acceleration everywhere, foot to the floor on highways, lights ablaze and heater going, expecting the “energy remaining” dial to dip towards zero much faster than BMW claimed. It didn’t. Even in the worst circumstances, the car appears capable of covering more than 100 miles between rechargings.

Time to write a cheque? Not so fast. Although another 50 Mini Es are taking to the streets of Berlin for trials, and more are expected to be made available in other European cities, there is no guarantee BMW will build Es for conventional sale. They are the product of a special BMW engineering group set up to explore future concepts; the company has committed to producing all-electric cars within the next three years. But exactly which model these technologies first appear in has yet to be decided. It may not be the Mini.

Moreover, a rash of new electric vehicles is due to be launched in the next three years. Few look more promising than GM’s Chevrolet Volt. It differs from the Mini in having its battery pack rechargable on-board by a small petrol engine. A fully-charged Volt will run for 40 miles on batteries alone. After that, the charging engine kicks in, giving the Volt another several hundred miles – and leaving the Mini flopped and exhausted, like one of those non-Duracell rabbits.

No comments:

Post a Comment