2nd Gen E Scoring the Electric Mini Acid Test

Discussion in '2nd Generation: 2007+ R55 through R61' started by Nathan, Mar 26, 2010.

  1. Nathan

    Nathan Founder

    Mar 30, 2009
    Short North
    +10,050 / 0 / -0
    Published: March 25, 2010
    New York Times

    TURNS out there’s a sure-fire way to get the public excited about electric cars: let people have them. After reviewing 1,800 applications on a company Web site, BMW’s Mini division selected 450 people last year to lease its all-electric Mini E for a full year in New York, New Jersey and greater Los Angeles.

    Along with the $110,000 Tesla Roadster, of which more than 1,000 have been sold, the Mini is the only highway-legal electric vehicle on the American road in any meaningful numbers.

    In a nation with 246 million internal-combustion cars, E.V.’s have spent decades on the fringes. But automakers seem ready to roll out the first E.V.’s and plug-in hybrids with the kind of range, performance and costs that might attract average Americans. Nissan plans to sell its $30,000 Leaf subcompact in a few markets by year-end; General Motors will offer its Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid around the same time.

    While the Mini E is not available in showrooms, the company is using its “Pioneers†to give real-world feedback on a car that can go more than 100 miles on a charge and has no tailpipe emissions. Those consumers have become vocal proponents of E.V.’s.

    Don Young and his wife, Dr. JoAnn Young, pay the requisite $850 a month to lease their Mini E — more than triple the lease rate for a base-model Mini Cooper. While that may seem high for such a small car, it includes insurance, maintenance and a powerful 220-volt home charger that can juice up the Mini in three to four hours. (Charging from a conventional household outlet takes up to 24 hours.)

    Despite the steep payments, the Youngs, who also own a gasoline-powered Mini Cooper S, have fallen in love with the battery version. A veterinarian, JoAnn Young commutes 60 miles each way from their home on Shelter Island, off the eastern end of Long Island, to an animal hospital in Islip, where the Youngs had a second charger installed to double the Mini’s daily range. JoAnn also loves the car, but notes that their Mini E — No. 364 of the American fleet — doesn’t handle as nimbly as their gas-powered Mini.

    The two-charger strategy was also adopted by Tom Moloughney, a Mini lessee who owns a restaurant in Montclair, N.J. Mr. Moloughney has rolled up 21,000 miles in eight months and has gone as far as 128 miles on a charge.

    While these Minis don’t use petroleum, they provide some social lubricant. Through a Facebook group, the Mini E pioneers have put together events — think a ’50s-style cruise night without the gasoline exhaust and smoking tires. And the social networks spawned an ingenious fueling network to extend the roughly 100-mile driving range: using Google Maps and a bit of planning, owners string together longer trips by recharging at the homes of their brothers-in-amps.

    Mr. Young, a former circus performer who is now captain of a Shelter Island ferry, challenged notions of “range anxiety,†the idea that E.V.’s will be forever leashed near their home outlets. Last August, on a trip he calls the Mini E e-Tour, Mr. Young covered a circuitous 1,020 miles — from Shelter Island to the Catskills, through New Jersey and home across Long Island — over four days and roughly a dozen recharges.

    Along the way, Mr. Young served as a Johnny Appleseed for electric cars, handing out Power Support Team T-shirts to fellow lessees, blogging along the way and doing radio interviews from the road.

    “The tour showed that once there’s an infrastructure, you won’t have to stick within 50 miles of home,†he said. Several companies, including BMW and Nissan, are developing quick chargers that can fill batteries to 80 percent capacity in a half-hour or less.

    Stopping for a multihour recharging break every 100 miles may be the antithesis of Americans’ scorched-earth blasts across the Interstates. Yet Mr. Young says such trips could revive travel on scenic backroads — at slower speeds that maximize E.V. mileage.

    The Mini E program has had some hiccups. Some drivers were forced at first to recharge at a snail’s pace by using household current, because Underwriters Laboratory had not approved the 220-volt charging cables that BMW brought over from Europe. A few Mini E batteries issued warnings or shut down because of slightly elevated battery temperatures, a problem that was resolved, BMW says, with a software fix.

    Richard Steinberg, program manager for electric vehicles at the BMW Group, said lessees encountered local red tape; some municipal inspectors saw the Mini’s wall-mounted charger as a strange or hazardous contraption, especially on the East Coast where E.V.’s are even less familiar than in California. Streamlining the permit process for home chargers would be an important step, Mr. Steinberg said, adding, “A lot of inspectors acted like they’d never seen an electric car before.â€

    Roughly 10 Mini Pioneers live in Manhattan, including Rebecca Hough, the sales and marketing director of Evatran, which is developing a wireless E.V. charging system. Ms. Hough had the Mini-provided charger installed in the public parking garage she uses.

    As for owner complaints, the biggest by far is reduced range in cold weather — a bugbear for any E.V. battery, whose chemical reactions are slowed by cold. Running the Mini’s battery-powered heater (or air-conditioner) cuts the range as well. A Mini E driver in New Jersey, Timothy Gill, discovered the downside when he overestimated his range during a cold snap.

    “Towed! After only 87.8 miles — sheesh!†he wrote in a blog post at

    myemini.wordpress.com. Another lessee blogged on G.M.’s Volt site that his Mini’s power gauge fell to zero after just 55 miles on a 23-degree day. BMW acknowledges that range can drop as much as 30 percent in frigid weather.

    Aside from practical issues, E.V. makers are continuing to cut costs and improve battery performance to make the the vehicles more attractive to average consumers. Analysts say a lithium-ion battery pack powerful enough for an E.V. adds $12,000 or more to a manufacturer’s costs.

    But those obstacles aren’t preventing automakers from jumping into the E.V. market. BMW’s next electric car, a version of its 1 Series coupe called the ActiveE, will undergo consumer testing next year. That car is part of BMW’s Project i, an environmental initiative that will develop an electric city car.

    This month, BMW decided to offer one-year extensions of Mini E leases at a reduced rate of $600 a month. Among lessees who have responded to the offer, about half have decided to keep their cars, the company said.

    BMW executives said they were mindful of the public relations nightmare that followed G.M.’s 2003 decision to destroy its EV1 fleet after the leases ran out, partly to avoid being stuck with long-term maintenance and warranty costs. The episode ended up with G.M. cast as the villain in a documentary, “Who Killed the Electric Car?â€

    Mr. Young, who ended his tour last summer by pouring Champagne over his Mini’s hood, said he would prefer to extend his lease. But he is open to other optio and would gladly turn over a new Leaf as well.

    “I’m loyal to Mini, but now I’m also loyal to clean cars,†he said. “Whatever’s available would be of interest.â€

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