First Drive: Mini E Electric Vehicle Is Far From Ready For Primetime

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Mini E electric vehicle

Mini E electric vehicle

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Last week, BMW proudly announced that Peter Trepp, of Pacific Palisades, California, had become the first person in the United States to take delivery of an all-electric Mini E.

We pity Mr. Trepp.

Not ready for primetime

Ten days ago, we had a chance to drive a Mini E. Rarely have we been in a car less ready for primetime than this electric conversion of that fun, peppy, cheerful rollerskate,  the 2009 Mini Cooper S.

Mini E electric vehicle - battery charge gauge shows charge and range falling, percent by percent

Mini E electric vehicle - battery charge gauge shows charge and range falling, percent by percent

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Mini E electric vehicle - nope, no engine in there

Mini E electric vehicle - nope, no engine in there

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Mini E electric vehicle - rear seat and load area mostly occupied by battery box

Mini E electric vehicle - rear seat and load area mostly occupied by battery box

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Mini E electric vehicle - start button and speedometer

Mini E electric vehicle - start button and speedometer

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Granted, these cars aren't for sale. They're prototype test vehicles, to gauge consumer reaction and give BMW some knowledge about how real drivers actually use electric cars day to day in the real world. BMW is issuing only 500 of them, on one-year leases.

But one of BMW's stated goals was to "preserve the Mini experience" in an EV. If the Mini were many hundreds of pounds heavier, suffered a distinct rear weight bias, rear-wheel-drive, and had the deceleration braking of a semi with the Jake Brake on ... yeah, maybe.

We've now driven prototype EVs from many makers: a 2011 Chevrolet Volt mule, the 2012 Nissan EV prototype, the 2012 Ford Focus EV prototype. In every case they were better behaved, more pleasant behind the wheel, and far more refined than the Mini E.

And that goes double for the only production electric vehicle currently sold in the US, the 2009 Tesla Roadster. We were lucky enough to road-test that car, and it's a rolling sales pitch for the virtues of electric drive. The Mini E may be its polar opposite.

Regen: So strong it throws you forward

Where to start? Perhaps with the regenerative braking, which replaces engine braking and slows the car while recharging the battery pack. In the Mini E, on lift-off, it took half a second to kick in--and then came on so strong it threw us forward in our seatbelts.

Time and again, until we ruthlessly trained ourself to feather the trottle and never to lift off abruptly, we could accelerate smoothly but lurched into every slowdown.

A further oddity was the slight delay before full acceleration. Electric vehicles are fun to drive precisely because an electric motor develops maximum torque from 0 rpm.

But the Mini E almost felt like it had turbo lag, with the characteristic EV rush of power coming only after half a second or so. Granted, it did have enough power that we could spin the inside wheel when accelerating out of a turn.

Engineers who design hybrids and electric cars will tell you it's exceptionally tough to program the software that blends power on and off and integrates the regenerative braking.

The Tesla Roadster was easy to drive on just one pedal; its regen seemed to come in at just the right time, and it took all of two minutes to learn. The Volt, the Focus EV, the Nissan EV, all of them were predictable and easy to drive, so much so that it was easy to forget we were driving an EV at all.

With the Mini E, it's impossible to forget. The entire feeling reinforces the notion that This Car Is Very Different From What It Used To Be.

We fear that the EV wizards at AC Propulsion of San Dimas, California, who developed the Mini E powertrain for BMW, are no longer at the top of their game. They were once some of the best in the business, but we were startled how clunky the Mini E really was.

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Comments (11)
  1. The Mini-E is a front wheel drive vehicle. Can you elaborate on how you were able to "spin the inside REAR wheel when accelerating out of a turn"?
    Needs Posi-Traction back there, right?

  2. @Russ: Correct, and all I can is D'OH! Brain fade from writing fast, corrected above.
    Also, see the update note I added from Tom Gage at AC Propulsion, which clarifies which responsibilities fell to his company and which to BMW. Interesting.

  3. I guess BMW didn't get any shots in at killing the electric car in the '90's so they feel it is their turn now. I hope that the MiniE doesn't damage perceptions about EVs since, from the EV1, the eBox, the RAV4EV, and the Tesla Roadster, we can definitely see that, if done right, the EV is an excellent means of transportation.

  4. As one of the folks in the field trial (car #140) I'd have to agree with Tom Gage. I've never been thrown forward in my seat and after driving the car for approx 160 miles so far, the braking is not an issue. I rarely use the brake pedal and have yet to lurch to a stop. The car is a blast to drive. :)

  5. I also had no trouble stopping the car during my test drive. I did forget and took my foot off the accelerator and shifted to the break when I pulled back into the lot. The car came to a stop but not abruptly.
    I'm still waiting to get my MINI E so I'll have to check it out in more detail then. Perhaps you can check one out later in the year to see if you still feel the same about it.

  6. This is just lazy writing. If you'd read Mr Tripps blog, you'd see he'e happy. You say it's not Mini Cooper S. But it clearly outperforms the D and the One.
    Anyway, some of this article is OK, but really, you're holding up a dev mule to the standard of perfection and saying "it's not there yet".
    Well, at least a couple other Mini-e owners have posted comments to balance the experience of the testers who wrote this.

  7. Close to 500 miles on #232 and it is great fun. Coming from a guy who just sold his 2005 Audi S4.

  8. Like learning to drive a stick shift, the skill comes with familiarity. A learning curve does not make it inferior. You master it.
    After 400 “E” miles, the regen seems quite normal. It’s responsive in stop and go traffic, and on winding roads with switchback turns, it’s really in its element.

    Regenerative braking is a matter of taste. Drive a sports car with a manual transmission, and the virtue of high regen will be obvious. If you like Autocross, you’ll appreciate the MINI.

  9. As noted above, once you learn to dive it (10 miles or so?) it is great. I own a Mini Cooper, and I have owned several BMWs, Porsches, even a Corvette, and they all drive really well in their own way, just like the MINI E.
    See my notes here:

  10. After I convert my old gas car to an electric car. I neverpay for gas anymore. It is completely save my money on gas.
    I love my elctric car to much.

  11. Whoever wrote this obviously doesnt know jack about electric cars. I have owned and driven quite a few and my MINI E is the best. The regen feels way better than the Tesla, it even works better than the regen in the EBOX. My car went 15.9 in the quarter mile and i was very close to the Tesla in the autocross. Dont believe me? Check youtube for Power of DC handle videos. Anyone who would say that this car is slow or doesnt handle, probably hasnt driven one. By the way my daily driver before the MINI E was a 2000 Corvette.Anyone is more than welcome to come drive mine and see what a really great electric car feels like. I currently have 9k miles on it and im enjoying every minute.

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