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Click to view picture galleryA remarkable electric MINI — the
  first product of
BMW’s ‘Projekt i
  has hit the roads running.
  Robertson was fortunate enough
  to get an exclusive drive in the
  million-dollar car money can
t buy...

UNVEILING AN INNOVATIVE NEW CAR at the Los Angeles Motor Show is hardly a great way to make motoring headlines in the UK. Yet, when that new car is as revolutionary as the MINI E, creating a test drive opportunity became a priority. Hence, my drive to and from BMW's headquarters in Munich* in a diesel-powered MINI Cooper for an 'electric' drive in the truly remarkable MINI E. *Click to read the MINI Cooper D feature.

The logic for the LA launch is linked to both that State's 'clean air' legislation and the US government incentives given to drivers of eco-friendly cars. No less than 500 of a strictly-limited run of 560 examples have been despatched to North America and, from a select list of potential and very keen operators, a monthly lease fee of $850 will provide a domestic charging device (fitted by a BMW MINI technician) and a MINI E for a fixed term of twelve months. The body of the MINI E is built in the UK and then shipped to Munich for the installation of the battery pack and electric motor.

Although it may seem hard to comprehend, MINI, via firm's web-site, have been inundated with requests to pay for the privilege of running the new model. A market-acceptable lease rate was reached and still the requests poured in. Nobody will be able to buy the cars, as they remain the property of MINI and each will be stripped and comprehensively checked post-trial at 'Projekt i' in Munich.

The MINI E features the use of Lithium-ion battery technology in an industry 'first'. However, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that the cars are as easy to drive and all-but-identical to the conventional petrol- or diesel-powered models is a major landmark.

Checking around the car, its under-bonnet area is filled with an electric 'engine' (in a sealed 'box') and the CVT transmission. The MINI E is a strict two-seater and opening the hatchback door reveals a rear compartment where the back seats would have been, packed with the equivalent of 5,088 mobile-phone batteries. There is limited boot space — the equivalent of the standard MINI's boot.

The start procedure is the same as on every other MINI: Insert the fob into its docking port and depress the adjacent 'Start' button. Instead of the normal sound of an engine bursting into life there is a futuristic silence. Slip the selector into 'Drive' and depress the throttle pedal and there's a distant hum. Although the car is just like an automatic to drive, the use of a transmission deceleration energy recovery system — which augments the battery power and helps to extend the car's usable range — means that adopting a more advanced driving style is preferable.

Most of the time there is scarcely a need to use the car's brakes; even in stop-start conditions around town. An engine power equivalent of 201bhp ensures that the MINI E delivers the most astonishing pace — although its top speed is governed to 95mph, if you floor the accelerator pedal the urge is spirited enough to despatch the 0-62mph sprint in 8.5 seconds, with no cessation of punch all the way to its maximum speed.

Yet, apart from some fancy touches — several stylish 'E' logos and stripes in a rather garish yellow — on the standard gunmetal grey paintwork and the virtual lack of extraneous noise bar some electric motor whine and accompanying tyre roar, this MINI blended into the Munich road network like every regular MINI spotted on the test route. It was never less than amusing to drive, in the unique way that all MINIs are. The suspension can be caught out over severe bumps, yet the steering responses are instant and the overall handling — which reflects BMW's 'Driving Machine' ethos of a 50:50 front:rear weight balance — is engaging and typical of the brand.

As Carlos Ghosn, the enigmatic boss of the Nissan-Renault Alliance, has already stated, the future for his companies lies in electric power and, allied to various taxation and other allowances in almost every major conurbation around the world, most of the world's carmakers are being forced into considering electric vehicles or EVs.

As charge ranges are extended and new battery technology is developed, EVs will find an increasing number of homes in both business and private sectors; which may lead to a rethink in the various driving standards training bodies and perhaps even lead to a Driving Test pass based on sitting a test in an EV. The change is coming — and faster than you might think.

On the environmental front, much investment has been made into Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery technology by the likes of Honda and Toyota. A handful of other car manufacturers have also dabbled in the area. However NiMH still causes an issue on the recycling front — the key reason for those in the anti-EV camp to roll out its usual negative lyrics about today's hybrid motorcars not being as 'eco-friendly' as they purport to be. However, there are no such issues with Lithium-ion batteries, which are known to be inert and non-explosive. They also occupy far less space and possess less of a recharging 'memory' — endlessly recharging a conventional battery causes it to lose some of its available capacity.

BMW has forged a relationship with a Norwegian Hydroelectric partner to develop its technology in Germany — 50 examples of the limited run of MINI Es are to operate in Berlin using power supplied by this organisation. There is also potential for another 50 MINI Es to be supplied to the UK.

In case you wondered about the 'million bucks' reference, consider the costs of a development programme such as this to BMW. Each Lithium-ion battery pack, which had to be specially constructed for the limited production run, cost in excess of 35,000. With the other work essential to produce the electric engines and to re-trim the cars to their new status, plus all of the development driving, research and funding a team of engineers and management for 'Projekt i', the costs — although BMW is reluctant to confirm the actual figures — amount to well in excess of 500,000 per vehicle, hence the dollar figure arrived at. The final retail price of a volume-produced alternative would be targeted at around 15,000 per car (at today's rates), with the battery pack being available on an affordable annual lease basis.

The downsides of MINI E are few; but they are summed up generally as a restriction to just two seats, a still remarkable range of almost 150 miles (somewhat disappointing alongside a petrol version managing 300 miles and a diesel with around 450 miles) before a two-hour recharge — using sustainable energy sources — is deemed essential. For the record, a full recharge draws a maximum of 28 kilowatt hours of electricity from the grid.

Neither you nor I will ever be able to buy one of these MINI E models. But the research into the technology will continue under the 'Projekt i' handle, extending into other BMW products — and will not necessarily be electricity-based. However, it is an amazing privilege to have now driven one tenable view of the future. And it is hugely satisfying. — Iain Robertson

| 500,000
Maximum speed: 95mph | 0-62mph: 8.5 seconds
Power: 201bhp
| Torque: 162lb ft | CO2 0g/km