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2009 Mini E Electric Vehicle

Ready or not, electric cars are coming. Mini is the latest brand to join the kilowatt club with a clever conversion called - minus Verne Troyer's blessing - the Mini E.

At first glance, the Mini E looks like something you could build at home. In place of the carbon-spewing 1.6-liter four-banger, you bolt in a 201-hp AC motor purchased off the shelf from AC Propulsion of San Dimas, California. In place of the back seat, you snap in 5088 lithium-ion batteries. (They're available from online suppliers for less than $10 apiece.) Rejigger the tachometer to register state of charge, wire up AC Propulsion's power electronics box, plug your project into any handy 220-volt socket for a three-hour charge, and you're ready to commute in the green lane.

Yes, it sounds silly, but Mini's parent is serious, stating with only hints of equivocation, "The BMW Group aims to start series production of all-electric vehicles over the medium term as part of its Number ONE strategy." Number ONE, decoded, stands for Opportunities, New, and Efficiency. "Medium term" means after a few real-world electric-car lessons are learned.

Like the hydrogen-fueled 7-series sedans that BMW built for demonstration tours, the Mini E is not a full production exercise. Instead, a fleet of 500 experimental cars will be driven by early adopters in California, New Jersey, and New York. Those who are accepted after applying through the miniusa.com Web site will lease an E for one year and receive a service box (but not the requisite wiring) needed to support 220-volt recharging. Leases may be extended, and service is included as part of the $850-per-month deal.

Following a quick test drive at the Los Angeles auto show, it's clear that this is no glorified golf cart. There's a short delay after you leg the accelerator, but when the electrons flow, there's more than enough energy to spin the front tires and flash the stability control warning light. The Mini E loved hustling up and coasting down inner-city grades. Acceleration performance - rated by the factory at 8.5 seconds for 0 to 62 mph - falls roughly between that of the regular Cooper and the feisty Cooper S. All the torque steer engineered into the Mini front suspension is alive and kicking in this edition.

The electric motor's hum is inaudible unless the air-conditioning and stereo are switched off. Piping "Danke Schön" through the sound system would complete the elevator mood.

Lifting off the accelerator triggers regenerative braking, which converts unwanted momentum into electricity used to charge the batteries. With up to 0.3 g of electric deceleration available, the friction brakes will die of boredom in city traffic.

The 573-pound battery pack riding in the back seat does wonders for weight distribution. Surfing through the waves of midday shoppers, the Mini E felt nearly as agile as its piston-powered counterpart.

The Mini E's state-of-charge gauge read 63 percent at the beginning of my seven-mile test run and 45 percent upon return to base. That indicates a total range of 39 miles, a far cry from the 155 miles BMW measured running an EPA urban driving cycle on a chassis dynamometer. Chalk it up as one very real-world electric-car data point.