Thu, Dec 04, 2008 - Page 14 News List

Mini’s debut is simply electric

BMW launches electric version of the British classic to great plaudits

By Alok Jha  /  THE GUARDIAN , MUNICH

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To a casual observer, it looks no different from a standard modern Mini, the British classic reimagined, to great plaudits, by BMW. But look closer and there’s something different about the Mini E, the latest addition to the range.

For a start, there are no back seats. And instead of a grease-caked engine under the bonnet there is a neat and clean arrangement of motors, pipes and electronics. On the dashboard, the rev-counter is gone, replaced by a dial to show how much power is left in the car’s on-board battery. But perhaps the most noticeable thing is the Mini E’s lack of noise: step on the accelerator and the car moves off with only the faintest whisper.

Two years in the making, the all-electric Mini E was unveiled at BMW’s headquarters in Munich this week. It has arrived just as the EU agreed to slash emissions standards for cars.

“When people get out of the Mini E they smile,” said Patrick Muller, the engineer at BMW who led the project. “People hear ‘electric car’ and everybody has a golf cart in mind or something with a flimsy plastic body. Here you get a full-blown car.”

The Mini E is powered by a 150kW electric motor fed by a lithium-ion battery, giving it the equivalent of around 200 horsepower. With a top speed of 150kph, the car will travel 240km on a full charge and go from zero to 96kph in 8.5 seconds— equivalent to a standard Mini Cooper.

BMW will produce just 500 of the cars at first, destined for urban trials in California, New York and New Jersey. These cars, available to lease early next year for around US$850 per month, will be followed by a further trial of 50 cars in Berlin in the summer.

“The urban application is the ideal way to find out about everyday use and all-day capability of electric vehicles,” said Alexander Thorwirth, BMW’s marketing and operations manager. “We want to investigate the habits of users ... and how electric driving works.”

Friends of the Earth’s senior transport campaigner, Tony Bosworth, said electric cars had a significant part to play in the solutions needed to cut carbon emissions. “However, battery performance must improve, and the electricity should come from renewable energy sources.”

The manufacturers claim the Mini E retains the nimble handling of its petrol and diesel-based cousins, but the performance comes at a cost: the back seats have been replaced by the 250kg battery pack, making the Mini E not only a two-seater but also heavier than standard cars.

To squeeze as much range as possible out of the Mini E’s batteries its brakes act as power generators, topping up the batteries as the car slows down with energy that would otherwise be wasted as heat. The battery has a life of around 160,000km and can be fully charged in under two hours from a high-power socket. A standard household socket will recharge the battery in around 10 hours.

The Mini, designed by Alec Issigonis, first rolled off the production line in 1959. The current model, which still retains many of the original’s distinctive features, remains an iconic vehicle.

Mini enthusiasts welcomed the new car. Paul Mullett, editor of the mini2.co.uk Web site, said there had been much excited discussion as soon as rumors of the Mini E began circulating earlier this year. “I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “It helps the whole move to alternative fuels as well. If a brand like Mini start using the technology and they get more people interested, it gets more real as opposed to more obscure, smaller start-ups that people maybe don’t know.”

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