Though a number of high-horsepower, rear-wheel-drive programs have been shelved as a result of the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy mandates, the electric-powered 2009 Mini E may be the first vehicle developed as a result of the draconian fuel economy standards.
Shortly after the new CAFE law was ratified, BMW Group established a team - deemed 'Project I' - to investigate producing smaller, eco-friendly city vehicles. Though many activities within the skunkworks group are held in top-secret, the Mini E - scheduled for an introduction at November's 2008 Los Angeles auto show - is the first to be publicly unveiled.
Each Mini E (there will be 500 in all) begins life on the same Oxford, England, assembly line as its Mini One, Cooper, and Clubman cousins. While those models are ultimately fitted with either a gas or diesel engine before leaving the factory, Mini E models roll off the line without any form of motive power whatsoever.
For that, they're then shipped to Munich, Germany, where scientists within the Project I labs install the electric powertrain. In place of the I-4 lies a 150 kW (204 hp) direct-current electric motor, mounted transversely in the Mini's engine bay, and powering the front wheels - after all, it is still a Mini...
The Mini's diminutive rear seats are then replaced with a giant wall of lithium-ion batteries. The three battery packs, rated at 35 kilowatt-hours, send a collective 380 volts to the DC motor in front. All three can be charged via 120 or 220-volt outlets, or with a specially-designed charger - aka the "WallBox" - which comes with each vehicle. Using the WallBox, a full-charge is accomplished in two-and-a-half hours, pulling as little as 28 kilowatt-hours from the electric grid.
None of these modifications, mind you, are immediately visible from the car's exterior. Were it not for the custom yellow-on-silver graphics, a missing exhaust tip would be the only way for bystanders to distinguish the Mini E from its regular brethren.
Yellow plug-shaped emblems adorn both the hood and the roof (itself sprayed in a different hue of silver from the body), while a matching yellow color line highlights the black leather interior. If those touches didn't already scream "special edition," each Mini E will have its three-digit serial number placed on the front fender vents.
We've known past Minis to be an enjoyable mixture of fun and frugality, and it appears the Mini E will be no exception. Though the Mini E transformation adds 600 pounds to the car, BMW estimates it will still travel 150 miles on a single charge and share a 0-60 time - 8.5 seconds - with a standard Cooper coupe. We've yet to drive the car, but we may have a learning curve with the E's aggressive regenerative motor braking - BMW says nearly 75 percent of all deceleration can be performed without touching the brake pedal.
If a two-seat electric Mini seems like your dream car, here's hoping you live either in New York City or Los Angeles. BMW plans on splitting the 500-car run of Mini Es between the two locales, allowing the cars to test within some of the harshest urban habitats known to man.
It seems you'll also need a bit of luck to get one. Starting in November, customers will be chosen via a web questionnaire, and the cars will be issued to customers via one year leases, á la GM's EV-1.
Though BMW claims the leases are "extendable," customers should expect to surrender their cars after twelve months, when they'll return to Munich for inspection. Following that, we're told the cars won't be re-leased, but corporate management will make a decision on adding the Mini E as a regular production model.