MONTEREY, CA – With each test drive, electric vehicles are becoming more familiar.
From the the eerily silent whoosh down a neighborhood street to the abundant torque on open roads, the modern EV has brought with it certain operational and performance characteristics that early adopters absolutely adore.
And yet, some aspects of the EV may never make sense to consumers who fixate on questions such as, “Will this thing get me home?” Range anxiety is neither trivial nor easily solved.
BMW’s new ActiveE, which arrives beginning this month as a 700-unit test fleet in California and the New York-Boston area, brings with it all the best technologies that make EVs compelling, such as energy-dense lithium-ion batteries and the flexibility to comfortably accommodate four occupants in a family-friendly package.
But calculating range is far from simple or straightforward. With a conventional gas tank, depletion comes in a predictable, linear fashion. EVs are inherently more complicated.
Climbing into the ActiveE at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca here for a 15-minute drive to our hotel, the vehicle computer calculates a range of 54 miles (87 km) and an 80% state of charge for the batteries.
After driving several miles, the computer says we have used only 3 miles (7.6 km) of range.
As we near the hotel, we tinker with the Eco Pro Mode, which automatically dials down certain functions to conserve energy. And then, for yuks, we shut off the climate control, which isn’t working very hard anyway on a moderate Central California winter afternoon.
The result confounds. After driving 10 miles (25 km) over the course of 15 minutes, the vehicle computer now calculates our range at 65 miles (165 km). That’s more range than we started with when we left the track. It’s like gasoline finding its way into the tank without ever stopping to fill up.
Clearly, the computer is forecasting range based on driving with and without the climate control running. So this means suddenly inclement weather now can make the difference between getting home or waiting on the side of the road for help.
True, it is better to have more juice than not enough, but in this strange alternative dimension of EVs we may never know exactly how far we can drive.
Range anxiety aside, the ActiveE is a fine package. Acceleration is more than ample, although a Nissan Leaf delivers more torque off the line.
BMW says the ActiveE, based on the 1-Series and assembled in Leipzig, Germany, has 170 hp and 184 lb.-ft. (249 Nm) of torque, enabling a 0-60 mph (97 km/h) sprint in less than 9 seconds.
The brake pedal sees very little action because BMW’s philosophy is to maximize the ability to recapture braking energy.
As a result, the accelerator pedal works as a regenerative brake simply by lifting your foot. In most situations, except for emergencies, drivers can motor around without ever touching the brake.
The Mini E, considered a precursor to the ActiveE, had no brake pedal at all, which meant the regenerative function was extremely sensitive: The faster the accelerator pedal was released, the more sudden the stop.
The ActiveE’s new 2-pedal configuration will be more familiar to drivers. During long stretches, the new EV also occasionally allows coasting without the usual regenerative grabbiness. The Mini E, on the other hand, allowed no coasting.
The Mini E also channeled its juice through the front wheels, which meant the vehicle suffered a bad case of torque steer, handling much like a bucking bronco under hard acceleration.
The ActiveE is rear-drive only with the motor mounted in the rear, and a near 50/50 weight distribution provides better driving dynamics.
Yes, the 192 lithium-ion battery cells add a whopping 992 lbs. (450 kg), pushing the curb weight a hair over 2 tons (1.8 t), and some journalists complain the portly demeanor of the tiny 1-Series creates too much body roll.
But that’s only noticeable when the ActiveE is driven like a conventional BMW sports car. Herein lies a difficult contradiction for a potential buyer who demands no-compromise autobahn worthiness. Should this customer even consider an EV?
Maybe not, but don’t forget the hordes of luxury buyers with deep pockets who collect vehicles like pieces of jewelry. To this audience, an ActiveE certainly makes for great conversation at the next cocktail party and advertises a desire to save the planet.
Reducing weight is a top priority for BMW’s next EV, the carbon-fiber-intensive i3, which arrives next year.
BMW requires ActiveE customers to install a 240V Level II AeroVironment charging device at home, which can cost more than $2,000, including installation in most cases.
Charging a fully depleted battery takes five hours, and the range is between 80 and 100 miles (129/160 km), same as with the Mini E.
A third-party supplier provided the Mini E’s powertrain and battery. But BMW developed the ActiveE in-house, including the electric motor, power electronics and drivetrain.
The batteries, which come from the SB LiMotive joint venture, are packaged under the hood, below the center tunnel and under the rear seat. The batteries are liquid-cooled, while the Mini E used air cooling.
The ActiveE will be available for 2-year leases with a down payment of $2,250 and $499 per month, which is slightly less than the Mini E.
Although BMW’s first two EVs were restricted to certain regions, the new i3 will be available throughout the U.S. and Canada.
By the time the i3 launches next year, perhaps range anxiety will be less problematic.
Vehicle type: Rear-wheel-drive, 4-passenger, electric vehicle
Electric motor: Synchronous
Power: 170 hp (125 kW)
Torque from idle: 184 lb.-ft. (249 Nm)
Top speed: 90 mph (145 km/h)
Overall length: 172 ins. (437 cm)
Wheelbase: 104.7 ins. (266 cm)
Battery capacity: 32 kWh
Battery system weight: 992 lbs. (450 kg)
Curb weight: 4,001 lbs. (1,815 kg)
Weight distribution: 49/51 Front/Rear
2-year lease price: $2,250 down, $499 month
Competition: Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt, Tesla Model S, Toyota Prius plug-in
Ultimate Green Machine / Extension cords only so long
Kick the petroleum habit / Gas stations outnumber chargers
Handles reasonably well / Take it easy on this 2-ton compact