BMW ActiveE Electric Car First Drive: What's It Really Like?

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BMW ActiveE electric car, January 2012, New Jersey

BMW ActiveE electric car, January 2012, New Jersey

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The first BMW ActiveE electric car in North America was just delivered last Friday. Now, with only 600 miles on that car, we've driven it.

Our first impressions of BMW's final electric test car, converted from a standard BMW 1-Series two-door sedan, are favorable.

It's solid, comfortable, performs well, and feels far more like a production car than its predecessor, the Mini E.

We're on record as calling the Mini E crude and unlikable. That didn't stop its drivers from raving about it, but the ActiveE is simply a far, far better car that we found much more enjoyable to drive.

Our drive came courtesy of electric-car advocate and restauranteur Tom Moloughney, who took delivery of that first ActiveE and spent the weekend getting familiar with it.

He calls it an "electric tank" and highlighted how much more solid and integrated it was than his departed Mini E, which he said was "pretty obviously a conversion."

Standard on the outside--and inside

From the outside, the BMW ActiveE looks like a standard white 2012 BMW 1-Series coupe, with the addition of a few graphics. The charging port is hidden behind the gas door on the right rear fender, and you might not look at it twice on the street.

From the inside, it's also pretty much standard 1-Series fare. The seats adjust manually, though the front seats are heated (to reduce use of the cabin heater to conserve electric range). And there's a nice, subtle smell to the leather upholstery that--we admit--adds a touch of luxury to this advanced vehicle.

BMW ActiveE electric car, Munich, October 2011; photo by Tom Moloughney

BMW ActiveE electric car, Munich, October 2011; photo by Tom Moloughney

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The right-hand gauge in the instrument cluster, which would normally be a tachometer, is instead an energy meter, with the "Charge" portion at the left showing energy regeneration and the "eDrive" at the right showing power delivered from the battery to the motor.

Most importantly, the BMW ActiveE has four seats and a lockable trunk, with sections of the 32-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack located in the tunnel, under the rear seat, and replacing the gas tank.

EcoPro mode: satisfying, surprisingly

The 125-kilowatt (168-horsepower) electric motor powers the rear wheels, and the performance is good both in normal mode and when the "EcoPro" button is pushed to conserve energy.

Most plug-in and hybrid cars we drive are pretty unpleasant when "Eco" mode is switched on, but the BMW ActiveE isn't. The entire car feels somewhat heavier and more deliberate, and while power is reduced, the car is still fine in traffic.

Switch off the EcoPro mode, however, and it feels peppy, with that fat electric torque curve making it fun to drive in traffic. And this is the default mode; turning off the car takes it out of EcoPro, and the driver must re-select it.

We noticed a muted version of the same acceleration curve as in the Mini E: When you accelerate hard, the car gives you enough power to move away, but full power doesn't come on for a second or two.

It's not annoying, but it's not quite Tesla Roadster-like. That's not really a fair comparison; the ActiveE is a 4000-pound vehicle (almost twice the Roadster's weight) with a battery pack of just 60 percent the energy capacity and an electric motor with one third less power.

BMW ActiveE electric car, at BMW Manhattan media event, April 2011

BMW ActiveE electric car, at BMW Manhattan media event, April 2011

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Single-pedal driving: easy

Like the Tesla, however, the ActiveE is easy to drive on a single pedal. The regenerative braking is relatively aggressive, but very well modulated, and it takes only a few minutes to learn just when to lift off so the car comes to rest just behind the car in front at a stoplight.

If the needle in the energy meter is exactly vertical in the "Ready" position while underway, the car is gliding, using an accelerator position drivers learn to find when they want momentum to carry the car as far as possible without the slowing effects of regeneration.

The ActiveE is definitely more fun to drive than the Nissan Leaf, which we found very competent but ever so slightly appliance-like.

BMW has done a good job in reinforcing the 1-Series body and re-tuning its suspension and handling to cope with a very different arrangement of mass and power delivery than in the gasoline versions. The added weight reduces the litheness of the original, but the car has a low center of gravity and corners tight and flat.

Your range will vary

Owner Tom Moloughney appreciates the many user-settable information displays and vehicle settings that are accessed through the BMW iDrive controller on the console.

BMW ActiveE

BMW ActiveE

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He's still getting used to using it, but he's already set a speed alert at 75 mph--so he doesn't waste energy by letting the car creep up over 80 mph--and set his battery state-of-charge and temperature readings as the main screen.

The thermal management of the battery pack--in layman's terms, that means liquid cooling and heating--gives the BMW ActiveE more consistent range performance, though like any electric car, it suffers in the cold.

The EPA rates the ActiveE's range at 94 miles (against the 74-mile rating for a Nissan Leaf), which reflects its relatively large 32-kWh battery pack. The Leaf has just 24 kWh.

67-mile test route

We tested the ActiveE on a January day in the high 30s (that's about 3 degrees C for non-U.S. residents) and with a fully charged pack, the car suggested a range of 72 miles in Normal mode and 98 miles using EcoPro.

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Comments (33)
  1. I really wanted an ActiveE 1-series, but even though I'm disappointed I really enjoyed this article. I've been a BMW owner for as long as I've been able to drive and it sounds like they've done a great job with the ActiveE. And although the i3 looks amazing I'm not looking forward to it, because it is just going to be another compact 5-door hatchback just like the Leaf, i, Volt, and Focus and the range won't be all that different.

  2. all the more reasons to get a Tesla Model S ;-)

  3. So if the EPA has reported a 94 mile range, have they also reported the MPGe numbers?

    Very exciting to see BMW make progress and I look forward to seeing how the i3 performs.

  4. The article does mention 2.7 miles/kWh which isn't particularly efficient, but then at 4000 pounds this car is extremely heavy for a sub compact.

  5. Chris, since it wasn't designed as an EV, they had to add about 800lbs of steel to reinforce the frame and battery packs. The old transmission tunnel where one of the packs are has a steel cage surrounding the battery, virtually eliminating the problem the volt had with the side impact test. I have pictures of it with the battery removed and it's very impressive. If a side impact penetrates that battery the way they have it protected, then there is no worry about a fire because the accident would most certainly be fatal to the passengers.

  6. It's 107 city, 96 highway and 102 combined. I'm averaging a bit over 3 miles/kWh so far. Not good, but I'm using the heat a lot in this cold weather and that kills the efficiency.

  7. Thats why BMW should have let me have one it was 74 here today and we're expecting near 80 degree highs for the rest of week. Anyway, I really like your license plate ; )

  8. Tom, Thanks for the added information. Is this information available online somewhere or did they just tell you personally?

  9. It's on my window sticker! ;) I put up a picture of the sticker on my ActiveE blog:

  10. The poor range is a little expected in the winter. Even my Prius only get 45 mpg in the winter versus the 55 mpg I get in the summer. We will wait to hear back from you once the weather is warmer before we pass judgement.

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  12. Correction - the Tesla roadster weighs 2800 pounds, which is not half of the Active E's 4,000 pound weight. Anyone driving an electric car, especially this BMW, which doesn't have great aeros, at over 65 MPH is going to get really crappy driving range figures. Should not exceed 55, generally. Not surprised that this car isn't getting the 4+ miles per kWhr that the Model S is knocking down. Despite equal prices, this car is horribly inferior to the Model S in every conceivable way, especially in the looks department, acceleration, driving range, etc. etc.
    Elon Musk has to be VERY satisfied with his team's efforts after reading this review. Back to the drawing board, Bimmer Boys.

  13. Yes, I saw that too. Half the weight is a bit of an exaggeration. If they were fitted with similar sized battery packs perhaps the comparison would be closer to true.

  14. @Ramon: The listed curb weight of the Tesla Roadster is 2,690 pounds, but I should have been less approximate in my math.

    As for price, the BMW ActiveE is $60,350 including delivery. The base model of the Tesla Model S will be $67,400 before any incentives (don't be misled by Tesla's annoying habit of quoting prices with the $7,500 Federal tax credit deducted) plus an unknown delivery charge.

    But it's a somewhat specious comparison, since you can't buy an ActiveE at all. BMW will only lease 600 of them in the U.S., they'll take them back after a couple of of years, and they'll likely be dismantled and crushed.

  15. "dismantled and crushed" Boy! what a kill-joy John

  16. Aaack! TYPO: That base price for the 160-mile version of the Tesla Model S should be *$57,400* not $67,400. Thus without including delivery charges, it is slightly cheaper than the ActiveE. My third paragraph still stands, however.

  17. BMW is definitely sensitive to the "dismantled & crushed" term and knows how badly that went for GM with the EV-1. I've had a lot of conversations with different people over there and everyone says they aren't going to simply crush them. Eventually they will all be taken out of service, as they were test cars from day one. I know some of the MINI-E's will remain in service now for a while in various countries around the world. I know BMW uses many of them in Munich as employee company cars and that eventually when they are decommissioned they are removing the battery packs and giving them 2nd life uses. There was a recent news story(I can seem to find it now) that showed a small building in Germany powered by a MINI-E battery pack.

  18. Crushing is not a problem unless the goal is to close the book on electric motoring and focusing on (short term)profitable SUV's instead like it was in GM's case.

  19. Really, Chris...? GM's purpose in ending and crushing the EV-1 was to "close the book on electric motoring" and not just make a profit? Yeah, those EV-1s that cost $80-$90k to make and wouldn't have sold, anyway, GM should have continued to lose money on them on the off chance they would be profitable a decade or two later...

    But, of course, GM has to continually play the bad guy for making a completely logical, prudent decision years ago...

    And GM making a profit off SUVs is bad, whereas Toyota/Nissan/Honda tripling SUV production in a decade (and losing money while doing it)is apparently a good thing. Oh, that's right, again, if GM does it, it's bad. Profit is a good thing sometimes.

    You're smarter than that, Chris.

  20. It's surprising to me how far behind BMW seems; are they really going to experiment for a couple more years while Nissan and Ford churn out more and more cars / models? But the car looks great, and that is by far the best license plate I've seen on an electric! My sentiments exactly. Since the middle east only provides about 30% of our oil, has anyone calculated how many electrics it would take to obsolete them?

  21. I see BMW being behind Nissan and Tesla in the EV market, that's all. They'll have their first EV (i3) for sale in about 19-20 months. Who else is going to be selling a competitive(in BMW's segment) EV by then? Converting an ICE to and EV is fine for testing in my opinion, but you make too many compromises in space and efficiency to really take the car seriously and it's why I really don't expect the Focus to sell well. Think about BMW's market segment, who's going to beat them to market with an electric car other than Tesla with the Model S? Mercedes, Audi, Infinity, Lexus, Cadillac? None of them will have an EV for sale when BMW is selling the i3 and the i8 phev sports car. They are actually way ahead of everyone they really compete with

  22. BTW, I saw the same license plate here in Massachusetts on a Prius (Without the first E). For those of us who lived through the 1974 oil embargo, it is a well appreciated sentiment.

  23. "They are actually way ahead of everyone they really compete with " they are not. The i3 will be another 100 mile range compact city car that will arrive not too early in the game. The only one that's really ahead is Tesla. It's building a reputation for it self of an EV technology leader building stylish high performance long range EVs long before anybody else and could become a huge competitor for BMW in a the new post ICE age in which a reputation for being the king of the straight six doesn't count for anything anymore.

  24. I love Tesla and I'm really looking forward to the Model X intro in a couple weeks. I'd definitely like a small SUV/Crossover with a 200+ mile and Tesla is the only one talking about doing it. I just hope they are around long enough to make them.
    They have a lot of challenges ahead and haven't even sold 2,000 cars in nearly four years of business. Lets see how the Model S launch goes. I doubt if they'll have more than a couple hundred cars made in 2012 and then lets see if they can ramp up production in 2013 and not have massive quality issues. All that said, I really want to see them survive. You can say BMW isn't ahead of anyone because they still haven't sold any EV's and that's fair, but in that regard they aren't behind anyone either

  25. Indeed Tesla has done well, but the FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) will be a drag on them into the future. There will be a lot more confidence that when BMW is ready to ship, the car will be good. Of course there are no guarantees, but for the moment if I had to make a leap of faith, I would leap to BMW over Tesla.

  26. I wish them all the best of luck; there's plenty of room and variety will make the EV market a much better place. I've already got over 9000 miles on my Leaf and I still love it, solar panels going up in the next few weeks (3k down and almost half the monthly cost) which should cancel the electric bill out, this transition is real and happening.

  27. Yes, there is plenty of room for everybody. Tesla has pushed the major OEM's to move on EV's already. If they can pull off selling tens of thousands of Model S's they will push then even further. BMW, Mercedes, Audi & Lexus and the like won't like Tesla eating their lunch, and the $50 to 90K market has been theirs for a while now.

  28. There are more comments in this thread
  29. Tesla Model S looks promising. My LEAF gives 3.9-4.5miles/KwH in temp. 35-70 degrees. I don't like to lease vehicles, even though I realize the EV technology changing & improving rapidly. I test drove the LEAF 3 times (over 2 years) before buying it. Fortunately Nissan was a nationwide "Drive Tour", bringing lot of awareness. I was sold on the EV-02, the LEAF was called with their second prototype, after the my first test drive.

    Financially, how much the ActiveE cost , including sales tax? I paid $40,500 before the tax credit (including all charges) for SL model.

    I really hope that Lithium-Air (Oxygen) technology proves to be viable & cost effective within 5-10 years to make EV a long distance car. BMW sees a market EV. Would love2C BMW

  30. The Tesla Model S is one of the world's sexiest designs but still has yet to be proven practical or reliable. As for the Leaf design, go back to the bad Johnny Depp movie where it came from. The BMW design is somewhere in the middle.

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