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

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

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

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

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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