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      10-12-2011, 11:10 PM   #1
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IL First Drive:BMW 1 series Active E Review

Imagine the road tests of 1900. The early critics would have been arguing whether steam or the newfangled internal combustion engine would become the dominant automotive power source of the 20th century. Maybe in a hundred years people will look back in a similar way to this road test of the 2012 BMW ActiveE and wonder how nave we were to imagine it was anything other than the future.

The ActiveE is, on the face of it, a crude device. Three lots of batteries and an electric motor have been shoehorned into the chassis of a 1 Series coupe. There's a hump in the hood to accommodate one set of batteries, while the trunk is half-filled with an electric motor. It's available in any color you like as long as it's white, boasts hideous stick-on graphics and is only available to lease, from this December on.

But to dismiss the ActiveE as a compromise is to miss its point. Like its predecessor, the Mini E, the ActiveE is a test bed of future technologies. This car has been developed to test the electrical hardware that will form the basis of BMW's bespoke electric car, the i3, which is due in 2013. To drive this car today is to get a taste of the future.

The Road to the i3
The critical difference between the 2012 BMW ActiveE and the Mini E lies in its components. While the Mini was effectively an off-the-peg solution, the ActiveE is a genuine BMW, using hardware designed for the forthcoming i3. With this car, there is no excuse for finger pointing.

The ActiveE employs 192 lithium-ion battery cells employed in three separate stacks, all of which boast their own control mechanisms. They're located under the hood and in a specially modified transmission tunnel and combine to deliver 32-kWh total capacity. They provide power to a brushless electric motor located on the rear axle. Being a BMW, this electric car is rear-wheel drive.

Manufactured by BMW, the motor develops 168 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, which is available instantly through the single-speed gearbox. In isolation that sounds healthy enough, but the new powertrain has had a deleterious effect on the BMW's waistline. In order to protect the front battery pack, BMW has designed a crash structure that would not look out of place in NASCAR. Add in further structural reinforcements required to meet crash test regs and you have a car that tips the scale at a portly 4,001 pounds, which is 749 pounds more than a 128i.

That's a huge sum, but BMW remains adamant that the production i3 will weigh no more than 2,776 pounds, thanks to bespoke engineering and a carbon-fiber body. For now, we are being asked to accept the compromises in return for the promise of a better tomorrow.

The Experience
At first glance, the 2012 BMW ActiveE looks like any other 1 Series coupe, save for a hump in the hood and some dodgy graphics that are, thankfully, a delete option. Inside, too, it's familiar except for a cheap-looking strip of white plastic on the fascia, some mods to the transmission tunnel and an instrument panel that replaces the tachometer with a charge/discharge gauge.

The ActiveE isn't the last word in agility, but that's not to dismiss it as a bad drive.

More significant than what's changed is what hasn't. Whereas the Mini E was forced to ditch its rear seats in favor of a battery pack, the 1 Series is happy to accommodate a brace of passengers in the back. BMW reckons it's addressed one of the key criticisms of its first modern-generation electric car.

You turn it on by pressing a traditional engine start button. Then you select Drive using the familiar gear lever and pull away. There's a discreet whine from the transmission and the sensation of forward momentum, but that's about it. This car is exceptionally refined.

BMW reckons it's good for zero to 62 mph in 9.0 seconds, which may not make the ActiveE the ultimate driving machine, but it does at least imbue it with enough pace for the typical urban joust. Nor was it disgraced on the Munich highway on our test route. Top speed is limited to 90 mph to protect the range of the batteries, but it's happy to cruise at 70-80 mph with a minimum of fuss. Were it not for the absence of engine noise and the need to change gear, you'd be hard-pressed to tell it apart from the European 120i. This power plant in a 1,200-pound-lighter i3 should be genuinely entertaining.

Almost Like a Real Car
The suspension is the familiar blend of MacPherson struts at the front and a multilink rear. It's been retuned and the ride height has been raised by 0.4 inch to accommodate the mass of the low-lying battery packs. BMW claims it's been able to retain its fabled 50:50 weight distribution.

Anyone who's driven the Mini E will remember the startling affects of its regenerative braking. Lifting off the throttle created such vigorous retardation that BMW programmed the brake lights to warn those behind. In the ActiveE, the influence is marginally less aggressive but it still takes a degree of acclimatization. This car will come to an abrupt stop even if you ignore the brakes. It's a bit like driving a high-downforce racecar.

At higher speeds you do notice the extra mass. The ActiveE isn't the last word in agility, but that's not to dismiss it as a bad drive. The steering is nicely weighted, body roll is well contained and if anything, the ride is an improvement over the regular 1 Series. The Bridgestone Turanza ER300 tires measuring 205/55 R16 also offer plenty of grip, despite being tuned for low rolling resistance.

What About the Range?
An analysis of 600 Mini E drivers in the U.S. found that they drove an average of 25 miles per day each. In theory, therefore, the 2012 BMW ActiveE's range of 100 miles should be ample. On our admittedly hard-driven test route, we achieved a range equivalent to around 70-80 miles, so BMW's claim does not seem unrealistic if you drive sensibly.

BMW is insisting that all customers have a wall box installed (at their own expense) capable of delivering 220 volts at 30 amps. Given this output, the car will require 4-6 hours to fully recharge. From a conventional 110-volt supply, the charging time will be closer to 20 hours.

For those seeking to maximize the range, there's also an "Eco Pro" mode. This detunes the climate control and reduces the torque from the electric motor unless you summon kick-down. In city centers, there's no reason not to use it.

Final Thoughts
Only 700 ActiveE models will be available in the U.S. beginning this December. BMW will require a $2,250 down payment plus $499 per month for 24 months.

It is BMW's final development tool before the i3 arrives in a couple of years' time. Anyone who leases this car will be paying for the right to be a BMW guinea pig, but that's unlikely to deter the early adopters, many of whom will already have leased a Mini E.

Compared with its predecessor, the ActiveE does offer some notable advantages, not least its greater practicality and smoother operation. It's still compromised, of course, but those failings are primarily a consequence of trying to squeeze an electric powertrain into a car designed for a longitudinal gasoline engine and rear-wheel drive.

The i3, which is being designed from the ground up as an electric car, should have little difficulty addressing most of these complaints. Based on this experience, it should be at the vanguard of the electric revolution.
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