For over a year, I've been looking for a way to get into an electric vehicle, but my options have been decidedly limited. I'm either lacking the funds (Tesla Roadster) or the alternatives have lacked character (Mitsubishi i, Focus Electric).
But now there's this: The 2011 BMW ActiveE. It's the next step for BMW in electrification – a bridge between the Mini E and the forthcoming i3 – that takes a standard 1 Series Coupe and adds a brace of batteries and electric motor to create a rear-wheel-drive sports coupe with a 100-mile range. Even better, the price is right.
Unlike the Mini E that required owners to plunk down a hefty chunk of change each month, the ActiveE's outlay is far more palatable: $2,250 down and $499 a month for a 24-month lease – well below what you'd drop on a new (or even used) gas-powered 1 Series.
Now I'm the first to admit to being an early-adopting sucker, but could it be worth my hard-earned Blogger Bucks to become a beta tester for BMW's electrification efforts? I flew 5,800 miles to Munich to find out.
The kit fitted to the ActiveE is set to power both the i3 city car and i8 hybrid-electric flagship. Specifically, the 125 kW electric synchronous motor integrated into the E's rear axle will find a home in the back of the i3, powering the rear wheels, while the i8's application will provide a boost of torque to the front wheels. The motor puts out 168 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque and weighs in at a relatively insignificant 200 pounds.
I say "relatively insignificant" because the trio of lithium-ion batteries are the real weight buzzkill.
The liquid-cooled storage cells reside under the hood, in the transmission tunnel and where the fuel tank would normally reside. Combined with the 200-lb electric motor, they bring the curb weight of the ActiveE up to a 'ute-sized 4,001 pounds – nearly 800 pounds heavier than a 135i. Ouch. On the plus side, BMW has taken great pains to keep the weight down low and the balance in check, and the results are an enthusiast-approved 50:50 weight distribution. But still... two tons? That's the price of retrofitting an existing architecture for EV duty.
That compromise only partially extends inside, with the rear-mounted electric motor sucking up around three cubic feet of trunk space (down to seven cubes versus the standard 1 Series' 10), and with the motor bulge offset in the boot, you can fit something through the pass-through behind the driver's seat. However, unlike its Mini E relative that nixes the rear thrones in favor of a massive battery pack, the Active E's back seats are completely unchanged, although still cramped for longer hauls with four people in tow.
According to BMW, the Active E required 350 new body components to get up to snuff, but you couldn't tell from the outside. Aside from the M3-esque hood bulge to accommodate the front-mounted battery pack, eDrive logos on the fenders and the lack of a tailpipe, this looks like any other 1. Lightweight, 16-inch wheels wrapped in 205/55 R16 Bridgestone Turanza ER300 Ecopias are standard, but we've been told a 17-inch option is available – something that should dispatch the roller-skate stance. Thankfully, the exterior graphics seen here are an option and can be deleted when ordering, saving me from busting out the hair dryer and peeling them off by hand if I decide to make the leap.
Pop the hood, however, and you start to see the extent of the modifications. The front-most battery pack is mounted far back and behind the struts towers where the straight-six would normally reside, helping achieve that BMW-spec weight distribution. Below the plastic panel that extends to the radiator support is a tangle of retrofitted bars that wouldn't be out of place in a dragster. These make up the additional crash structure. BMW claims crash-worthiness is the same as the 1 Series donor and exceeds most government requirements for passive safety.
Inside, it's standard 1 Series fare, with the exception of a slightly modified transmission tunnel (note the panel on the driver's side) that increases the battery capacity and cants the center console slightly inward. White trim and Dakota leather seats join blue accents and stitching to differentiate the ActiveE from its traditionally powered twin, while the ConnectedDrive system has been reworked to keep tabs on energy consumption, output and driver behavior.
All the standard ConnectedDrive features are included with the ActiveE, so I'd be able to enjoy navigation, XM satellite radio, Google Local Search and Send-to-Car functionality, and a range of connected apps that normally come in higher-spec models. Also included with the ActiveE is a reworked BMW MyRemote app for the iPhone (and soon, Android) that allows remote locking and unlocking, horn and headlamp activation, and GPS-based CarFinder that's good for finding the E within 1,000 meters. The app also allows the user to find charging stations, get range information and pre-heat or cool the car to help extend the range with a few taps. All the data from the duo of systems will be fed into the BMW mothership for assessment and logging, and I'm okay with that. Check out our Short Cut below for a brief walk around of the app.
BMW's test loop spoke volumes about the ActiveE's intended purpose: A 20-minute jaunt around town, followed by a blast on the Autobahn and another in-city run back to BMW's fleet center. The lack of alpine roads or macadam tarmac meant no opportunity to push the EV overly hard – after all, this is a city car designed with urban dwellers and daily commuters in mind. However, the electric steering (in place of the hydraulic setup on the standard 1) provided remarkable accuracy and feedback, while the chassis defaulted to benign understeer when caning it onto a short on-ramp and nearly up to its electronically limited speed of 90 mph (to protect the batteries, so sayeth BMW engineers).
Getting off the line with 184 lb-ft isn't a chore, but a nine-second 0-60 mph run doesn't set this driver's heart aflutter. Nor is the single-speed's propensity to lose much of its oomph above 45 mph. What is enjoyable is the ActiveE's regenerative braking – one of my favorite features after spending a week with a Tesla Roadster Sport – which allows coasting to a stop in quick order without ever touching the brakes. Like the Mini E that came before it, regen is strong enough to bring the car to a halt, but it's tuned down in the Active E, and allows the driver to balance the braking by modulating the "gas." Ease up slowly and the deceleration comes on lightly (as do the brake lights, an apparent requirement in the U.S.); give it a bit of maintenance throttle and you can approximate a traditional ICE's coasting. There's a learning curve, but it's shallow enough for the average driver to adapt to within minutes.
Those two tons of overall weight are used to good effect, giving the ActiveE a thoroughly planted – and decidedly Germanic – feel on the road. It doesn't feel heavy, although it's not exactly spritely, and the reworked suspension tuning (raised by about a half-inch) keeps body roll minimal and the ride pliant, even more so than a standard 1.
Like any EV, the prevailing noise inside is from the road and tires, although there's a cool whine that enters the cabin under mild to hard acceleration. It adds a bit of sci-fi character to a drive that's otherwise free of noise, vibration and harshness.
Over the course of our 40-km (25-mile) loop, we managed to bring the charge down by about a third, as shown by both the energy gauge that replaces the traditional fuel level indicator and the connected iPhone app. That said, these were (*ahem*) journalist miles, so it's safe to assume that the same route could be done with considerably less electrons. Additionally, there's an EcoPro mode that retards throttle response, shuts down the defrosters and tweaks the climate control to boost efficiency by up to 10 percent and eke every ounce of energy from the batteries. We used it a few times during our drive and didn't notice much of an effect on performance (kick down the throttle and you still get all the torque), and it should prove highly effective when puttering silently around town.
When the time comes to top up the packs, a three-prong port resides under the traditional fuel filler cap (comically, BMW kept the gas cap holder on the door), allowing you to port 220 volts at 30 amps for a four- to six-hour charge time. Use the same outlet that's running your toaster, and it'll take about 20 hours – something which BMW doesn't recommend, which is why they require all "Electronauts" to have a 220-volt installed in their garage.
So am I ready to install a charging station and sign up for one of the 700 (of 1,100 total) ActiveEs headed Stateside? I live in one of the chosen areas (California, but New York and New Jersey are also included in the program) and my county offers up some compelling incentives. I'll also have to get in line behind the 70 or so Mini E drivers that kept their electrified Coopers beyond the original one-year lease. But what I'm after is an entertaining, occasional-use rear-wheel-drive EV that can snag me a few tax credits and get me into the electric game on a budget. The ActiveE delivers on most of that, but the more compelling package is coming in 2013 when the i3 arrives. The curb weight of the aluminum and carbon fiber five-door will be down considerably – somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,700 pounds – but the barrier to entry is sure to be higher and the fun factor remains in question.
So for now, I'm in wait-and-see mode. Another run that includes some backroad blasts to gauge the ActiveE's engagement quotient is certainly in order, but if the thousands of hand-raisers that stepped up for the Mini E program are any indication, I'd better decide quick. For you? If you're one of the millions of Americans with a 40-mile commute and you're ready to take the wheel of a highly polished, four-wheeled Guinea Pig, get registered at the ActiveE microsite and get ready for the future. I'm there. Almost.