The E is for Electric
Driving the MINI electric car in New York
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, might be my first stop, or maybe Union Square in Manhattan: anywhere that green-minded urban hipsters congregate, so they can flip out over the MINI E.
BMW’s electric-powered MINI Cooper rolled down my Brooklyn street on a flatbed this morning, ensuring that its 573-pound, lithium-ion battery pack was fully juiced for my test drive. (Wouldn’t want to run out of power in the Holland Tunnel.) The company has 450 MINI Es up and running in a field trial in Los Angeles, New York and New Jersey. MINI's hand-picked consumers are leasing the car for one year -- and paying $850 a month for the pleasure of driving the rare, 100 percent EV that’s actually legal for highway use. (Right now, only the roughly $110,000 Tesla Roadster can make a similar claim.) Those owners include an L.A. couple whose female half leased the ill-fated General Motors EV1 in the '90s, and has wanted an electric car ever since; along with green-energy proponents. Those owners, whom MINI refers to as “pioneers,” have helped MINI discover some real-world obstacles, especially in electric infrastructure. Regulatory red tape delayed the approval of MINI’s charging plug and also slowed the installation of 220-volt chargers at people’s homes or offices. The MINI includes a conventional 110-volt household plug and cord, but it's mostly a last resort: Charging on that low current can take up to 24 hours. The more-robust 220-volt charger can handle the job in fewer than four.
MINI says that the E can drive just over 100 miles in “normal” driving conditions and more than 150 in ideal conditions, though some owners have noted that cold temperatures take a bite out of the driving range -- an ongoing hurdle for EVs. The car zips from zero to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds and tops out at 95 mph.
The first thing I noticed about driving the MINI E is the highly aggressive regenerative braking. Like hybrid cars, the MINI converts the heat energy otherwise lost in coasting and braking and uses it to charge the battery. The MINI’s regenerative brakes are more obtrusive than even hybrid drivers are used to, sharply slowing the vehicle the second you lift off the gas pedal to recover maximum energy. And the MINI’s enormous battery pack eliminates its small back seat, making the MINI a true two-seater – but like any MINI, still eminently comfortable, even for a pair of 6-foot-5-inch adults.
I may not be wandering too far from home in the MINI E, though owners have set up impromptu charging networks through Facebook and other sites, allowing users to share their home chargers to make longer trips possible -- an intriguing idea in the time before we have an actual recharging infrastructure in place. But with my batteries topped off, I’m eager to see what it's like to log miles in the MINI E, while feeling good about producing zero tailpipe emissions. Check back in a few days for my real-world impressions.
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