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In 2009 I had the chance to drive and review the MINI E test vehicle, before they went out into the public in the UK, starting the latest BMW electric charge.

The review, originally for MINI2, has long since gone from the internet. However, I kept a copy, and it's here below in full, for anyone interested in what my first impressions behind the wheel of an electric BMW vehicle were (and how the bosses at BMW viewed the future, in the past)...

Land vehicle Vehicle Car Mini Motor vehicle

The MINI E, the all electric plug in MINI, has been zipping around the streets of the USA and Germany for a while now. This is a great thing, it's good to see MINI among the leading lights in alternative fuel vehicle development and it's working wonders in terms of both research and generating fantastic PR. It's also a sad thing. It's a sad thing that our friends overseas have been having their electric MINI fix while we in the UK look on with envy. That is, until now.

Farnborough, within eyeshot of the local MINI dealership, was the slightly unusual choice of location for BMW to unveil the MINI E to selected members of the media and other interested parties. We were delighted to be among those fortunate enough to get behind the wheel of the MINI E on British roads, and it was a very enlightening experience. This road test was like no other for several reasons. For a start, the MINI E will not go into production. In the UK market only 20 vehicles will go on public trial, with another 20 set aside for testing in fleet and commercial environments. Those 20 vehicles will be sent out on two separate six month trials, so in total 40 UK households will have an opportunity to experience life with the MINI E.

It was revealed today that over 500 valid applications were received during the month long window of opportunity for UK trial applicants. There's going to be a lot of disappointed people out there for sure! The trial area is limited to a triangle of the South East of England, where the power grid is owned by Southern Electric, who will be providing 32 amp home charging points as well as infrastructure at remote locations, such as out of town Marks and Spencer stores.

For their part MINI E trialists will not only be paying £330 a month subsidised lease for their cars, they will also be expected to cover around 300 miles a month and liaise with a member of Oxford Brookes University. Oxford Brookes, another of the partners involved in the MINI E UK trial, will be responsible for gathering and collating data from the trial.

So we find ourselves driving a car that wont ever go on sale, and whose trial lease is seriously over-subscribed. I guess it doesn't matter what any of those present think. Whatever results the research garners, the MINI E is already a smash hit for BMW.

The MINI E wont go on sale, but parent group BMW do have big plans for alternative fuel vehicles. The future, they believe, is hydrogen. No, you didn't read that incorrectly - at the launch of UK trials of their pioneering electric vehicle, BMW stressed that they believe the future, most likely, is not electric. That's not to say they're not looking at launching an electric car. BMW will have their electric Megacity vehicle, either branded BMW or as a sub brand of BMW, not MINI, on sale by 2015.

The driver briefing was unusual for me. Usually it's a case of "you know how a MINI drives, off you go...", but the MINI E is no ordinary MINI. There's no rev counter. In its place sits a charge meter, which displays the current charge in terms of percentage (this started at around 90% and finished around 60% after our short and curvy drive around the local countryside and villages). Instead of a fuel gauge there is a charge/discharge/recharge meter. This shows how your driving style affects the battery conditions. Press the go-faster pedal too hard and this shows the rate of discharge climb dramatically. Allow the vehicle to "coast" and the effect of regenerative braking shows the battery charge being replenished. A nice touch.

Unlike my co-driver for the day, Paul Clark of Green Car Guide, my experience of electric cars has been limited to fair ground dodgems and kids toys, so I had no benchmark, and no idea what to expect from the my time behind the wheel of the MINI E. This is a MINI with no gears, no rear seats, and no discernible engine noise at all. Alien technology disguised as an everyday MINI.

Starting up the MINI E, and things already begin to get weird to a guy who's grown up with rough old and tuned up engines. There's no sound. OK, that's a slight exaggeration, you can hear the brake vacuum pump and a couple of quiet clicks. But that's it.

Hitting the busy streets of Farnborough the experience was immediately surreal and enthralling in equal parts. The car is all but silent, and I cannot express how unusual it feels to have a car "ticking over" and appear no different visually or audibly than when completely shut down, or how that bizarre experience is amplified when you press the accelerator and car silently, not to mention incredibly smoothly, pulls away. The MINI E is the graceful swan to the John Cooper Works' howling banshee.

However, the JCW comparison is not at all out of place. The MINI E's electric motor boasts 201 hp and 220 Nm torque. That torque is there all the way through the power band. This could perhaps prove interesting in ice and snow, but on dry roads it offered incredibly smooth and predictable driving. The power delivery is really what stood out for me as a first time MINI E driver. I'm not a fan of automatic cars in general, and the automatic MINIs are not as appealing to me as the manual counterparts, but the single speed MINI E was a revelation. No gears, no lunges, no hesitation, just silky smooth power whenever you desire. Lovely.

When you lift off the accelerator things do get a little less comfortable. We were forewarned of the slightly aggressive nature of the regenerative braking, but even so it was more dramatic than I had expected. You really don't need a brake in this car 90% of the time. If you get off the gas (so to speak) the car briskly pulls you back to a halt. In town, with a very small amount of getting used to, you could coast about, recharging as you go, very comfortably. This really is the easiest car to control I've ever driven, bar none.

But there are a few reservations about this vehicle. There is no rear seat. But unlike the MINI GP, where you at least have storage, the MINI E has 260 kgs worth of battery back there. Which also means there's no boot. Luggage space is all but gone. You could squeeze in a few shopping bags, but nothing more than that, and with the battery enclosure finishing around head height, it's probably not wise to store things on there either, not until you get used to the braking at very least!

Not only does the battery box eat storage, it also adds a lot of weight, and not in an ideal place in terms of driving dynamics. Driving the MINI E reminded me of driving a MINI with a very heavy load, like a full DJ set or full size washing machine (and yes, both can be accomplished). Perhaps that's a slight exaggeration, but it certainly didn't feel as balanced as a regular MINI would on the same twisty country lanes. There was also a fair amount of torque steer apparent under hard acceleration, which took me a little by surprise.

But, with those unavoidable caveats and characteristics put to one side, I was mightily impressed with the MINI E. So now, instead of reading blogs and tweets from US and German MINI E trial members with envy, by the end of the year I'll be able to be envious of MINI drivers closer to home instead. The MINI E is just a glimpse of what's possible with electric vehicles and is, as we were often reminded at the event, very much a trial prototype vehicle. But if in the future MINI or BMW release an electric car for the masses, it should be one hell of a car!
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