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The Mini E - is it the wheel deal?

BMW hopes the electric version of its big-selling Mini will energise drivers sceptical about battery-powered cars. John Hall puts the Mini E through its paces

As a man who spent the coldest winter in 30 years making icy commutes on the world’s most unreliable Vespa, the promise of a balmy birthday weekend test-driving the much-hyped Mini E prototype felt like an apt reward for my winter of discontent.

With an experimental launch that included parading the car around Downing Street late last year and allowing government ministers to trial it over the previous few months, one would be forgiven for assuming that BMW were gearing up for a full scale launch of the Mini E.

The reality is that the car is not for sale and there’s a good chance it never will be. Rather the Mini E is an experiment by BMW to asses how drivers might use the car if it were on the market and has therefore been given to 20 independent ‘pioneers’ who pay £330-a-month to lease it and report back on the experience. That information will be used in the design of a brand new car – rumoured for launch in 2015 – which may or may not be a Mini E and in all likelihood may not even happen.

My experience of the Mini E however, began with the shock of discovering it was both left-hand drive and automatic – features I’d not experienced in my seven years driving. A welcome distraction was the low slung, sporty appearance of the car – a genuine surprise and were it not for the luminous yellow plug graphics dotted around the silver bodywork, it’s likely you’d never know the car was electric.

Until you get in it of course.

Once inside, the lack of rear seats is striking and one ponders the use of a city car chunky enough to cause difficulty parking yet only able to carry two passengers and very, very limited luggage. The grey hump where the rear seats would be may not be ugly but it is a constant reminder of the omnipresent battery that, unlike a petrol car’s engine, has invited itself inside your vehicle and refuses to give up its seat.

Much has been made of ‘range anxiety’ – the idea that drivers somehow trust electric vehicles less than their petrol-powered forebears. In my case the theory held true however, particularly after the battery power gauge dropped from 95 miles remaining to 72 miles remaining in the time it took me to drive from one side of a car park to the other. In fairness though, what I imagine to be a minor technical blip (the only I experienced over the weekend) quickly corrected itself and once I’d gotten the Mini onto the open road, its battery life shot back over the 90 mile mark. Still the glitch was enough to invoke ‘range anxiety’ for the rest of the weekend, ensuring I kept a closer eye on my battery power than I ever would a petrol gauge.

Slightly less abstract but just as difficult to adapt to was the Mini E’s regenerative braking system, an innovative but somewhat unsettling BMW-designed tool that charges the battery whenever you decelerate. In order to power this ‘regeneration’ the car automatically brakes every time your foot is taken off the accelerator.

The system is dramatic - enough to fully engage the rear brake lights – and, when used by a rookie such as myself, can be forceful enough to send you forward in your seat and probably scare/annoy the driver behind. After an hour of driving however, I was considerably more comfortable with the system and soon found that I only really required the brake pedal if forced to decelerate quickly. Seeing as I spent the majority of my time driving in central London, the potential for generating enough speed to require hard breaking was limited and my brake pedal remained rarely touched.

It did cross my mind however, that what BMW has actually developed with the regenerative braking system is a gadget that makes kangarooing down the road in fits and jerks the most efficient way to conserve battery life. Could this really be the future of driving?

Once I’d settled in the Mini E felt, much to my surprise, just like an ordinary car. Ok, my experience of driving electric vehicles is extremely limited – although probably no more so than the average UK car buyer - but it still came as a shock to me how genuinely exciting it all felt. I’d imagined the Mini E would be a little dull; calm and comfortable but all together a little bit boring. The opposite was in fact true.

Despite the one speed automatic gear box, the acceleration wasn’t at all bad – 0-62mph in 8.5 seconds apparently - and once it was moving, the Mini felt capable of outpacing almost everything around me. On the one occasion I required the car’s ability to get me out of a tricky spot the Mini E responded perfectly, enabling me to easily manoeuvre around a daredevil black cab that, without indicating, swung across two lanes directly into my path.

Exciting it undoubtedly is, but there were a couple of occasions when the Mini E did in fact scare me. The car was unbelievably silent, to the extent that upon returning it, the technician tried to start the car several times before realising the engine was already running. On a more serious note, there were a couple of occasions where people on the pavement were ready to step out in front of me until I sounded my horn and, judging by the way they leapt out their skin, more than one wobbly cyclist failed to hear my approach.

While sensible drivers cannot be held responsible for the carelessness of pedestrians, it is undeniable that, particularly in less-built up areas, people rely on their ears almost as much as their eyes when crossing the road. Something I’d be keen to see on the Mini E is the adoption of Nissan and Toyota’s plans to make their electric cars slightly noisier for the safety of pedestrians and other road users.

Although I wasn’t given a charger for my weekend’s test-drive, I was taken through the charging process – a simple task that just requires plugging a lead into a 32 amp wall home-charging kit (four and a half hour charge time) or a normal 13 amp plug socket (10 hour charge time). However, a drawback of the charge - as well as the limitations on journey length - is the fact that should the battery run out somewhere inconvenient, you’ll need to find a spare plug socket for 10 hours to get a full charge. It’s not a case of a lift to the nearest petrol station with the Mini E and tow-ropes are something I’d certainly consider investing in if I knew I was going on a lengthy journey.

Despite a couple of drawbacks, the Mini E is still a great car for the city. With responsible charging, battery life is unlikely to be an issue and, once familiar with it, the regenerative braking system really improves drivability. It’s certainly not a car for long journeys but with such limited luggage space, the Mini E is clearly not designed for that purpose anyway.

Mini are looking for a second wave of pioneers to take part in their trial. For more information and to apply, visit www.electricMINI.co.uk