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Living with the BMW Active E proves electric cars can be fun

Consumer Reports News: April 24, 2012 03:08 PM


BMW is currently offering 700 people the opportunity to lease the Active E, an electric version of the BMW 1 Series. This car is essentially a test bed for BMW's electric drive research, underwritten by participating consumers at $499 a month. The company has loaned us an Active E for 10 days, and we've been enjoying the zero-emissions driving... with a sporty flavor.

Driving the Active E is quite satisfying, but there is a learning curve. Acceleration is quick, smooth, linear, and quiet. Frankly, it feels more powerful than the 168-hp rating for the electric motor. Zero-to-60 mph acceleration is a claimed nine seconds, which seems reasonable based on our experience. On the highway, the car feels plenty energetic and cruises comfortably. But as soon as you let off the throttle, the regenerative braking kicks in aggressively, so much so that it's nearly impossible to coast with this car. In fact, you can come to a complete and relatively prompt stop without ever touching the brake pedal. Fortunately, the brake lights turn on as soon as you lift off the gas, thereby warning cars behind you. (We commented on the over-eager regenerative braking when we drove the Mini E in 2009.) According to BMW, the "regen" effect was toned down from the Mini E and some drivers reportedly think it's not aggressive enough. Nearly everyone on our crew who's driven the Active E was taken aback at the strong deceleration.

The Active E is more important than its limited distribution might suggest because it has the same drivetrain as the upcoming all-electric BMW, the i3, due in late 2013. The large lithium-ion battery has a 33-kWh capacity, and for optimal battery longevity, BMW utilizes 90 percent of it here.

The computer predicts a 70-something mile range on a full charge and informs us that we've been averaging about 3 miles per kWh, which is quite typical of EVs. Charging times have been quicker than most other EVs, thanks to the 7.7-kW onboard charger. It took less than four hours to charge on 240 volts. Using regular 110-volt power, BMW figures it'll take close to 20 hours to recharge. A full charge costs about $2.40 based on the current average national electricity rate, but in the metro areas where the car is offered, it's likely to cost nearly twice as much. At 19 cents/kWh, our local Connecticut rate, replenishing 21 kWh costs $4.10. If a gallon of gasoline costs the same, that's the equivalent of 70 mpg. Another way to slice it is that operating the Active E costs 5.9 cents a mile.

As with the Mini E, the Active E proves that green mobility and fun are not mutually exclusive. The Active E corners eagerly with virtually no body lean; you'd never know the steering had been converted to electric. It feels well-weighted and provides decent feedback.

Compromises? Other than the limited range and the charging time typical of every EV, very little. The Active E retains a usable back seat, but the battery packaging compromises trunk space. Compared to our 3,360-pound 135i, the Active E weighs a fair bit more at 4,075 pounds, and yes, that extra weight is noticeable. Also, at $499 a month, plus a $2,250 down payment, BMW seems to be charging people quite a lot to act as Guinea pigs. (BMW is currently offering a turbocharged 2012 335i xDrive coupe for about the same.) At least the Active E rate is far less than the Mini E pioneers paid for the early adopter privilege.

But as to the car itself, the Active E is proof that EV driving can be fun.

For more about electric cars, visit our alternative fuels special section. And see our first impressions of the Ford Focus EV.

Updated: 4/25/12. Changed battery size from 36 kWh to 33 kWh, percent used from 60 to 90.
Updated: 4/26/12. Added indicated range.

Gabe Shenhar

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