MINI E Driven

It was a sad moment for the 40 MINI Pioneers on that rainy day in March at the MINI Oxford Plant when they had to return their electric companions with which they had spent the last 6 months.  The second of two trials, the first ran from December 2009 until June 2010, closes MINI’s test of their electric drive systems.  The data collected from the trials was not only to test the electric capabilities of the car but to intimately examine how people use and live with an electric powered vehicle; it was a lifestyle proving ground.   BMW’s engineers never question that they will develop the best electric powered platforms, what they didn’t know was how people would use and adapt to this new technology.  Every MINI E sent out on trial, all 612 of them built in the US and sent to different parts of the world, carried a blackbox to record charging times, distances, braking, while the drivers recorded their personal logs.  This information will directly influence the development and design of the BMW i3, BMW’s first electric car under the new sub-brand “i” perhaps to debut at this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show.  Not immediately adapting electric technology to the MINI may be a missed opportunity as everyone who I bumped into during my test drive, and certainly all the 40 MINI E Pioneers would have definitely bought into an electric MINI E and here’s why!

The Test

I have to admit that I have never been a true fan of the new MINI.  Its always tricky to re-design as classic, VW with the Buggy, Fiat with the 500, and MINI with the well Mini.  It didn’t help that people kept saying “ooh, I can see you in a MINI”, typically I always do the opposite of what people tell me.  I had driven one many years ago, enjoyed it but found the whole interior a bit overdone and cartoonlike.  So, I cast it off my list of cars that I would like to own in my lifetime.  Then the MINI E came into my test drive list and I must admit there was something tempting about this combination, MINI + electric.  I really didn’t understand why the change of heart, I am of the camp that EVs should speak a new design language and offer new vehicle architecture, unlike the combustion engine cars.  In this case, though, the design and electric power actually live together very well as a concept and in reality.  The package is right, the look is there, and in a city it makes sense…its electric street fashion!

MINI didn’t do anything crazy like refit these test cars in any special way.  In fact they might have handicapped the experiment by sticking the battery cells behind the driver and passenger thus sacrificing the convenience of space, but the Pioneers didn’t care…and neither did I.  To tell the truth, most of the Pioneers who applied for the test run were more interested in driving a MINI for free for 6 months than the fact that it was electric.  For me, naturally, the motivation was inverted, the result surprising…not only did I thoroughly enjoy the electric experience I also fell for the MINI’s charms!  Gasp!

Emotive stuff aside here is the short of the test.  After I left the MINI Oxford plant parking lot, and many Pioneer broken hearts, I set off down the M40 to London on a full charge, at 70 mph…and fingers crossed.  I played it cool trying to not succumb to range anxiety as percent after percent the dial dropped.  The MINI E lab range is 156 miles but actual range, with external elements considered, on a full charge is more likely to be in the 120 miles area.  This ultimately will change in the i3 as BMW develops better battery technology and energy transference.  My trip was a little over 60 miles and I made it back to the office with about 35% left in my cell.  Little did I know that I would not be able to charge the car overnight for a week!

I had scoped London for charging points, planned an extended trip to Sainsburys where I could recharge for free, and even tapped a friends’ garage, but city life never turns out the way you plan it.  I didn’t have enough time to spend at Sainburys, my friend left town on business, and the city’s charging points are always being used by the beautiful G-Whizs.  On top of everything after I double-checked that parking was free in the City of Westminster I got a parking ticket! I quickly learned that living with electric is life changing. 

Once you have figured everything out you work around it, with many benefits.  It is great that you don’t have to pay for parking or the congestion charge but the best asset of all is regenerative braking!  Say it with me ‘regenerative braking’, or Brake Energy Regeneration in MINI speak.  I have driven other electric cars but never been so close to my limits.  I was determined to go about my business as usual despite my dropping charge.  What I figured out was the more I used that regenerative braking the further I could milk the charge.  What happened?  I changed the way I drove; I didn’t use the brake unless essential and just let the car do what it was built to do.  In this way I went a whole week doing errands, meetings, and more on the one charge I got from the plant, a 30 minute stop at Sainsburys, and I managed to give the car back with 21% charge!  At less than £1.60 per charge that is a pretty good deal.

The Design

The design of the MINI E is pretty much the same as the original concept designed by Frank Stephenson back in 1997; in some ways improved manufacturing and materials is what has perpetuated the design of this two-time classic, she still looks good.  Friendly eyes, a smooth section, the wrap-around greenhouse so en-vogue these days, and fun colour combinations makes each car unique to it’s owner.  Inside is still a bit gimmicky with the oversized circular central odometer and toggle switches.  However, now that the power is generated electrically this layout seems to have a louder voice, a reason; toggle switches make sense, on and off, connecting and disconnecting a circuit.  Even the elliptical plastic door inserts have passed the test of time.  There are an obscene number of circles used on the interior if you are so inclined as to count them - 15-18 depending on you obsession level.  Also on the overkill side was perhaps the number of plug stickers plastered over the car, I think I counted 8, not that the parking warden noticed.

Sue and Doug

Sue and Doug were two magnetic Pioneers I met at the Oxford plant, well actually Sue was the Pioneer and Doug, her husband, nicked her car when he realised how much fun it was.  Doug is a man who owns a 4 ltr sports car as he puts it, and despite having installed solar panels twice on his house it was never out of an eco motivation but more of a property improvement.  After their 6-month trial Doug is a changed man, he loves the instant torque and Sue loves the lifestyle change.  They noticed that not only were their solar panels generating and covering the cost to recharge the car but they were making enough to contribute back to the grid and making money.  Sue could happily get to work 12.5 miles away and tack on some errands on top without any anxiety.  They adjusted to the weather, the coldest in decades over the winter, and made all sorts of excuses to not return the car on due day echoing other Pioneers’ sadness to part with the MINI with excuses like “the dog ate it” or “it was stolen!”.  I thought it was all a bit much…little did I know.

The Future

Speaking to Dr. Julian Weber, Manager of BMW’s Project i, I asked whether the recent economy and climate concerns were main motivators for BMW to develop electric powered vehicles.  He said that actually back in 2007 there was a strategic shift at BMW with the idea that the future car must be emissions free and include connectivity; this later became the motivation behind their Mega City plan and project i.  So whilst certainly the reality of economic hardships and environmental issues serve as a catalyst for change BMW was already exploring an alternative future.  They certainly seem better prepared and connected than any other automotive company with their new brand BMWi Born Electric.  It taps into the connectivity we use already on a daily basis and our instinct to survive without compromise.  As humans, and all the complexities that assumes, we do not simply want sustainable lives, we want fulfilled lives and BMWi is looking to do that for future generations.  Using MINI as the brand to capture that imagined future was a very smart move indeed.

The Handover

The day finally came to hand over my MINI E test car number 607.  In a way I was relieved, I didn’t know how much longer I could regenerate my own energy…it was fun trying though.  What I didn’t expect was that I had developed a slight attachment to the car.  MINI is definitely a brand with a strong identity - one that I thought would conflict with my own stubborn one.  In reality there are so many animalistic qualities to the design of the car, quirky oversized wing mirrors, heavy doors that always nudge you, the bulldog stance, and spirited drive quality that it does take on the role of a companion.  So on that very day I did say goodbye I looked back twice as it was swept away by the Flying Doctor (MINI E’s personal trainer)! 

Big thanks to Jenny at Elektromotive for speeding over the dongle for London's EDF Juice Points