BMW electric 1-Series ActiveE

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Motor: synchronous electric motor (12,000 rpm max. speed)
Battery pack: 2kWh lithium-ion, 192 cells/25 modules divided between three compartments
Power: 170 PS
Torque: 250 Nm
Range: up to 100 miles
CO2 emissions: zero at tailpipe but overall impact depends on fuel burnt at power station
Top speed: 90 mph (artificially limited)
Acceleration (0-60 mph): 9 seconds
Price: trials vehicle not available for sale

BMW’s 1-Series ActiveE has more or less the same staid upright looks as any other 1-Series Coupé but beneath the plain wrapper it’s one of the most advanced cars on the road. In place of the standard car’s conventional petrol or diesel powertrain, the ActiveE has an electric motor, although it does stick with BMW’s traditional rear-wheel drive layout, and the battery modules are arranged around the car in three compartments, contributing to a near 50:50 weight distribution, another typical BMW trait.

And the ActiveE doesn’t just use any old electric motor and batteries because it previews the technology that will go into BMW’s first purpose-designed electric car, the radical i3, which will be introduced next year. The ActiveE isn’t being sold to the general public – instead a thousand or so are being used in trials, of which 160 will form part of the fleet of cars that are being used to shuttle officials and competitors around London during this year’s Olympics.

If my experience of the ActiveE is anything to go by, this year’s Olympians are in for a smooth and silent ride, and buyers of the i3, when it eventually goes on sale, can look forward to something special. The first thing you notice straight away is that the ActiveE looks and feels like a properly finished production car, with none of the rough edges you might expect on a prototype or trials vehicle. The electric drivetrain is well hidden, although it does eat into the boot space somewhat, leaving a slightly tight 200 litres for your luggage.

Out on the road, the ActiveE is outstanding, with the electric motor providing a wonderfully quiet surge of power, especially at low speeds. At 1,815kg, it’s pretty heavy, although that’s what you’d expect with all those batteries on board. The weight can be felt during cornering but not in a disconcerting way; it feels as though the ActiveE’s centre of mass is quite low and that near-50:50 balance helps too. One notable characteristic of the ActiveE is that the drivetrain provides very strong regenerative braking. In fact most of the time, you can rely simply on lifting your foot off the accelerator to slow the car, rather than operating the brake pedal. The ActiveE remains beautifully smooth at all times, suggesting that BMW is well advanced with tackling calibration and software issues, which again augurs well for the i3.

And the i3, as a car that’s designed from the ground up for electric power, will have a few advantages over the ActiveE. It will be lighter, because it will be one of the first mainstream production vehicles to make extensive use of carbon fibre, and it will get an optional range-extending internal combustion engine, eliminating one of the few drawbacks of the ActiveE, its limited range of only about 100 miles. All in all, it’s an exciting prospect.

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