Mini Electric Car Fun But Quirky During My Short Test Drive

At the LA Auto Show today, I had the privilege of testing the 2009 Mini E electric car on a short drive downtown. It’s zippy off the line and maintains the Mini’s sense of fun and performance, yet it also has a few quirks that may make driving it a bit of a hassle — at least during an initial “mental adjustment” phase.

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The new-for-2009 Mini E electric car is undoubtedly one of the most highly-anticipated cars being released next year. Initially the car will only be offered to a select group of 500 people in the Los Angeles, New York and New Jersey metro areas who will be chosen by Mini to provide the exact set of testing conditions Mini engineers want to evaluate.

If you live in one of those metro areas, the Mini E application to become part of the elite 500 test fleet is now open. Beware though, it’ll cost you $850 a month for the privilege and they had 10,000 people sign up on their email list to be notified when the application opened.

While the Mini E was certainly fun to drive and provided the responsive performance Minis are known for, it also left me wondering if people could get past some of its quirks. For starters, the batteries take up the entire rear of the car, making the mini E strictly a two-seater and leaving essentially no room for anything but a couple of the world’s skinniest bags. No golf outings for two in this baby.

“So what?” you say, “I can handle no storage space.” And I agree with you, but only a small group of us would feel the same way — potentially limiting mass-market appeal.

Really the biggest quirk — one that could even create a safety hazard — has to do with the Mini E’s regenerative braking system. It was a quirk that all the test drivers I talked to complained about.

As part of a choice to try and squeeze every last bit of driving range out of their new E, Mini’s engineers have designed a braking system that does an excellent job of providing extra charging power to the lithium ion batteries. The car has a listed range of 156 miles, but Peter Krams, the BMW Group engineer in charge of the Mini E project confided to me that under real world conditions he sees about 130 miles per charge (a charge  only takes about 2 and half hours using a 240V power source).

However, the result of such an aggressive regenerative braking system is that the Mini E slows down so harshly when you take your foot off the accelerator, that it feels like you’ve just pressed down sharply on the brake pedal and somebody slapped you on the back of the head. It’s pretty disconcerting and left me wondering if the car has more control than I do. I could imagine some situations in heavy traffic where this feature would become a true safety hazard.

No really, after thinking it over, this feels like a big issue to me. Mr. Krams said that he’s been driving the car in Munich for quite some time now and that eventually “you just get used to it.” But why do we all have to just get used to it? Perhaps Mini could include a way to switch between an “economy mode” where the regen system works as it did for me today, and a “normal mode” where the range is less but you have more control over your vehicle’s braking capability.

Anyway, the Mini E is certainly an exciting car and worthy of the hype that’s been attributed to it. Some of the quirks are certainly unfixable in the short term (e.g. no room in the back), but the major regenerative braking issue could potentially be dealt with by a simple software upgrade. Once they’ve got their elite 500 in place, Mini can start working these issues out.

My guess is that the final production version, with an author-assumed release date sometime in 2010, will do away with the always-on harsh regenerative braking system during testing next year due to popular demand.

Photo Credit: The author standing in front of his Mini E test car.

 

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.