Los Angeles--The Mini E is a love/hate affair.
The all-electric car created by the BMW division is easily one of the best electric cars around. It is incredibly fast, it handles well and it's fun to drive. Weirdly, the real highlight comes in the brakes. As soon as you lift your foot off of the accelerator, the regenerative brakes begin to grip. During a 15-minute test drive, I barely applied the brakes at all.
If you don't count the X-1 prototype from Wrightspeed or the Tesla Roadster, the Mini E is the most thrilling electric to drive. See video.
Unfortunately, it is also not real. BMW will make a few hundred of the cars for field trials, but it doesn't have plans to mass produce the car. And for good reason. The car's battery consists of 5088 cylindrical lithium ion battery cells. The battery pack, in fact, takes up the back seat and a good portion of the cargo room.
While the batteries give the car its zip, it likely makes it too expensive to sell. The Tesla Roadster has 6831 cylindrical battery cells and it starts at $101,000. If it came to production, the back seat-less Mini E might have to sell in the $80,00 range. For that kind of cash, you could get a long, elegant Fisker Karma with four seats.
Unlike many other car makers, BMW seems firmly entrenched in demo mode when it comes to electrics and plug-ins. At auto shows, it often shows off its hydrogen combustion car. This car does not run on a hydrogen fuel cells--it burns hydrogen as a fuel. It's interesting, but even more commercially distant than a fuel cell.
So a A for performance and handling combined with a C for overall corporate strategy toward electrics and the Mini E gets a B.
Speaking of hydrogen, we also got to drive the F-Cell from Mercedes, a B-class Mercedes powered by a hydrogen fuel cells, during the L.A. Auto Show. Yes, hydrogen faces a number of barriers coming to market. Producing hydrogen requires large amounts of energy. If the hydrogen comes from methane molecules, several kilograms of carbon dioxide get produced for every kilogram of hydrogen.
The gas is difficult to transport and few filling stations exist.
Nonetheless, there is hope. If hydrogen could be generated in a clean way (synthetic photosynthesis as Sun Catalytix has proposed, or harvesting waste heat from nuclear power plants to split water molecules), these cars suddenly begin to make sense. A fuel cell takes a tremendous amount of the mass out of an electric car, resulting in a car that has a longer range and drives better. Fleets could comprise the first wave of customers, because hydrogen filling stations could be centralized.
Those advantages and the hope of better hydrogen -- and it does remain a dream -- explain why Daimler, Toyota, Honda and others continue to work on fuel cell cars.
How does it drive? Quite well. It's a Mercedes, so it glides over the potholes of life with barely a murmur. The interior cabin looks like it could fit an extended family, a few dogs and a pony with ease. Acceleration and braking: far better than my Honda at home. Overall, it was very similar, but a tad better, than the Volvo all-electric.
Daimler says it will conduct trials in 2012 and wants to mass produce these cars in 2015.
While production of hydrogen cars might not actually begin until 2025, the ride and overall feel both show why the promise remains.