When BMW embraces a new technology, you know it's going to do it right. The mere mention of turbocharged M car, just ten years ago, would have had fans of fast BMWs choking on their bratwurst, but the new M5 gets forced induction, and is looking like the finest car yet to wear the blue and red badge.
Electric cars however, are a different kettle of fish. We all know battery technology needs to progress, and quickly, but what manufacturers are really interested in is how potential customers are likely to use them, and what limitations they present.
That's why the ActiveE, an all-electric version of the 1-series coupe, picks up precisely where the MINI E left off. Just over 1,000 examples will be built in Germany, with 700 of those destined for US shores from the beginning of next year. The deal is simple, customers can apply to lease the cars from BMW for 24 months, costing $600 a month with a mileage cap of 31,000 miles, and their collective experiences will help to shape battery-powered BMW's of the future.
More specifically, the guinea pigs who lease an AcitveE will help to iron out any bugs in the system before the company's first purpose-built electric car, the i3 supermini, goes on sale in 2013. We spoke to an engineer who told us the electric motor and batteries used here are identical to the ones that will grace the i3, the only difference being it will need fewer of them. Thanks to its groundbreaking aluminum and carbon-fiber construction, the i3 will still travel 100 miles on a charge, but weigh around 2,750 lbs instead of 3,970 lbs for the ActiveE.
Surprisingly, the biggest complaint from users of the now defunct MINI E wasn't its limited range; it was the fact that it had batteries where the rear seats once were, which damaged its practicality. You'll see that the ActiveE keeps all four seats. In fact, the only giveaway that it's anything other than a standard 1-series is a bulge in the hood to accommodate a stack of batteries, a lack of tail pipes and trunk space reduced from 13.0 to 7.0 cu-ft. Still enough for two golf bags, BMW says.
The interior, too, is traditional BMW fare. Look closer and there's blue stitching on the leather seats and a revised instrument cluster, that displays remaining charge and the instantaneous energy being used - what's remarkable is how normal the whole thing looks and feels. But it's what you can't see that make the difference here.
Batteries are stuffed under the bonnet, the floor pan and where the fuel tank would usually be, while the electronic control unit and motor itself are mounted directly to the rear axle. That's a lot to cram in, but engineers have managed to maintain a near 50:50 front-rear weight distribution - crucial if it's to handle like a BMW should.
Slot the key in, hold the brake, push the starter button and it definitely doesn't sound like a BMW should. Only the instrument panel bursting to life lets you know that it's ready to go. Squeeze the throttle and you creep silently and smoothly away from a standstill. Lift off the throttle at the first junction and you'll inevitably come to a jerky stop, somewhere short of where you intended. The retardation forces from the brake energy regeneration are firm to say the least. BMW claims that used to its fullest potential it can boost your range by up to 20 percent, and that's easy to believe.
After some brain recalibration, though, it becomes huge fun to play around with. You'll find yourself barely using the brakes - but instead coming off the throttle early, letting the motor flip from power supplier to power generator, and coasting neatly to a standstill.
A torque output of 184 lb-ft might sound meager, but (as I'm sure you've heard a thousand times) that's available from zero rpm, so it gets smartly away from the line. Keep it pinned and you'll cover 0-62mph in nine seconds and keep going until you hit the limited top speed of 90mph. I tried just that, and the way it delivers the power - perfectly linear and without any interruptions for gearchanges - is thrilling and alien in equal measure.
Find some bends and there's more good news. OK, a car measuring 172-inches in length and weighing the best part of 4,000lb is always going to have a tough time disguising its weight, but the effects are less pronounced than you might think. The steering, although heavily assisted, still offers feedback while the car feels beautifully planted mid-corner - a by-product of its extremely low center of gravity.
Parked, the ActiveE is a fair bit slower. A full charge from a standard 110V socket will take anywhere between 16 and 20 hours - but BMW will install a 240V, 32A wall box at your house which slashes that to five hours. Perhaps more usefully for the life of a busy professional, a 25 mile charge can be accomplished in just an hour.
All this bodes extremely well for the i3. If all goes to plan it will shed a third of the ActiveE's weight, and gain all the handling benefits and reduced charging time that go with that, while simultaneously offering more interior space. By taking its time and doing things right, BMW is about to prove the electric car does have a place in the premium market.
2013 BMW ActiveE
Base price: $600 per month (24-month lease)
Engine: Synchronous electric motor
Power: 170 hp
Torque: 184 lb-ft
0-62mph: 9 seconds
Top speed: 90mph
Drive: Rear-wheel drive
Range: 100 miles