2010 MINI E: First Drive
By Chris Haak
I’ve now tried one of the vehicles at the beachhead of the electric vehicle revolution, and my reaction is that the revolution needs some more work if it hopes to succeed. My first EV driving experience occurred this week in the MINI E.
BMW built a fleet of 500 individually-numbered Mini (sorry, BMW, but I’m tired of capitalizing the name) Coopers that substituted their nearly-useless back seats for a large lithium-ion battery pack. Rather than the traditional gas tank and gasoline engine, the Mini E has a transversely-mounted electric motor under its hood bonnet. The battery pack is constructed of 5,088 cells grouped into 48 modules. The modules are arranged into three different battery compartments spread throughout the Mini E, and operate at 380 volts.
The E’s electric motor produces 204 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque from zero RPMs. The weight of the batteries and electrical components adds almost 600 pounds to the car’s curb weight compared to the gasoline-powered Mini Cooper (3,230 pounds rather than 2,668 pounds). BMW talks about how the suspension has been “tuned to match its weight distribution” the real meaning is that they had to change suspension settings to accommodate the previously lightweight car’s newfound heft.
Since all Minis, including gasoline-fueled ones, have pushbutton start (only some require you to “dock” the key into a slot in the dash, while others allow you to keep the key in your pocket while starting the car. As I sat in my test vehicle for the first time, I forgot that the more “basic” Minis required that the key be docked in the dash, so I pushed the Power button only to have nothing happen. I pushed two or three subsequent times, and chalking up the experience to perhaps a dead battery, began to exit the car. A Mini rep then asked me if there was a problem, and I told him I couldn’t turn the car on. He showed me how to put the key into its receptacle (oops), and pointed out that the battery was far from dead, with 97% of its life remaining. I was off and running.
Obviously, the first sensation that I noticed was silence. I had the windows open for the first part of my drive, and it’s far quieter than a gasoline-fueled vehicle. The prominent sound is a whine from the electric motor when power is applied (and when power is not applied, as the motor’s regenerative braking feature is active when decelerating). The second thing I noticed was a very non-linear throttle response. The car felt as if pushing the accelerator a little didn’t do anything, then pushing it harder made the car just take off in a fit of torque steer and a spinning outside tire. I can’t find any specs on this particular feature, but I suspect that the Mini E has no limited-slip differential, which it really needs. The “normal” Mini Cooper, and particular the higher-power/higher-torque versions like the John Cooper Works, have legendary torque steer, and the instant torque of the E probably makes it worse.
As I made the trek up a small mountain, I alternated between slowing down as I hadn’t applied enough accelerator pedal and chirping one of the tires and activating traction control. It was a very jerky trip to the top of the mountain. I also watched the battery gauge dropping steadily; to be fair, I was not babying the car, but by the time I got to the top, it had fallen to 80% full. I figured that wouldn’t be a problem, because the E would be able to regenerate some energy on the downhill run. I was wrong.
The regenerative braking in the Mini E was so obtrusive that it didn’t allow any coasting whatsoever. It felt to me like an annoying calibration issue, but apparently Mini is proud of the E’s regenerative deceleration. From the press release:
As soon as the driver releases the gas pedal, the electric motor acts as a generator. This results in braking force, and the power recovered from the kinetic energy is fed back to the battery. This interaction ensures extremely comfortable drives – especially at medium speed with constant, but marginal, variation. In city traffic, some 75 percent of all deceleration can be done without the brakes. Making substantial use of this energy recuperation feature extends the car’s range by up to 20 percent.
They’re at least being honest, except for the part about “extremely comfortable drives.” I have never driven any car or truck of any kind that will bring you to a complete stop, downhill, on a 25% grade without touching the brakes. In fact, I think I touched the brake pedal twice during my 25-minute trip. Recapturing kinetic energy is fine, but it’s the most annoying sensation I have ever experienced when driving an automobile, and I’ve driven some pretty annoying cars during my life. Incidentally, the long run downhill added about one percentage point back to the car’s battery life. In a six-mile trip (granted, uphill, driving quickly, and with the air conditioning running on a hot day), I used almost 20% of the car’s battery power.
The added heft of the electric car hardware could be felt in the way the car handled switchbacks and directional changes in general. It felt like a Mini Cooper with two obese people riding in the back seat would. Honestly, it wasn’t quite that bad, but it also didn’t feel like the tossable little go-kart that the normal Mini Cooper is. Mini is pretty good at implementing electric power steering, so that felt all right, and I can’t really comment on brakes since I didn’t use them.
The air conditioning compressor was, of course, electric rather than mechanical, but worked well and cooled the cabin with aplomb on a 90-degree day. I didn’t turn on the stereo during my brief time with the car.
I was honestly a little disappointed with the experience. I was hoping for a high-torque, electrically-powered version of a regular car, but instead got something that felt unnatural, with an extremely short range, and seemingly requiring additional development work.
Mini offered one-year leases for $850 per month on the 500 Mini Es that it produced, and it received four times more applicants than it had cars. After the cars are turned in, BMW will examine the cars and their usage patterns to further develop additional electric vehicles. My hope is that BMW will apply the lessons learned in the Mini E project to a more enjoyable, less expensive follow up model that drives more like a Mini.
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