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Europe/Australia: BMW comes charging into the future

Less than a handful are in showrooms, and not much more have been sold, although that’s going to change.

Eventually it will change fast as governments encourage plug-in development in a push for greener motoring, a switch already happening in Europe and gathering pace in the US.

Some predict electric cars will account for 10 per cent of global sales in 2020 and others are even more aggressive. Tesla Motors chief Elon Musk predicts a 50 per cent share as he pushes for acceptance of his new Model S luxury electric limousine.

But Europe is still the focus of electric car development and no one is pushing harder than BMW, which is even creating an electric sub-brand – BMWi – to house its plug-in and range-extender electric models.

The first of the sparky newcomers, the i3, is just around the corner and testing is focused on a fleet of 900 special BMW 1-Series cars that carry the power pack that will be transplanted next year into the back of the i3.

I am driving the ActiveE in an Australian exclusive, searching for answers around BMW HQ in Munich but also keen to see if electric cars – following my drive time with the Nissan Leaf and, more recently, the Smart ED – really can be a workable and enjoyable future.

VALUE

How do you put a price on the future? You can’t actually buy an ActiveE but, if you could, it would probably cost $250,000.

Why? Because the basics of the car are a BMW 1 Series coupe and, in Australia, that means at least $47,400. By the time the engineers and assembly line workers have done their regular jobs, and then the boffins have completed the switch to sparks, the price has soared into the laboratory-on-wheels range where cost is not a major worry. “It would be expensive still, clearly, because it’s prototype development,” says Ian Robertson, BMW Group’s head of worldwide sales and marketing.

But the ActiveE morphs into the i3 next year and, even though Carsguide would much prefer a pricetag in the affordable $35,000 range, it’s likely to be about $60,000. That’s still a lot for a car you can’t drive from Sydney to Melbourne, but it shapes up well against the Mitsubishi iMiEV at $48,800, the Nissan Leaf ($51,500) and the upcoming Holden Volt ($59,990).

TECHNOLOGY

The ActiveE is developed from BMW Group’s original electric testbed, the MiniE – the most impressive electric car I drove until the Leaf – and builds on that package. For a start, there is a back seat.

The ActiveE is a totally battery-powered electric car powered by a permanent-magnet, hybrid synchronous motor rated at 125kW and 250Nm. The battery has a 32kW-hour capacity and weighs 450kg, complete with liquid cooling.

BMW says the ActiveE will zap to 100km/h in 9seconds with a top speed of 145km/h, performance that’s way better than the Smart ED electric runabout I drove in Stuttgart last month.The range is 145kilometres, something I don’t get to seriously test but which seems realistic.

BMW says the car’s new power pack weighs less than 100kg, which is good news for the i3. The ActiveE has a total weight of 1800kg but BMW is aiming for about 1200 for the showroom i3, which will retain the company’s traditional rear-wheel drive.

The ActiveE package includes a bunch of other tricky stuff, from a ‘coast’ mode that allows you to save energy when you lift off the accelerator at highway speeds, very impressive regenerative braking – it’s so powerful that it trips the brake lights because of the deceleration at city speeds – and even stability and traction control adapted for the electric world.

DESIGN

The ActiveE almost looks like every other 1 Series coupe. The big giveaway is not the graphics package on the sides but the ‘power’ bulge in the bonnet.Traditionally, this sort of thing is used to help ram air into a combustion engine, or clear space for giant fuel injection inlets, but in the ActiveE the bigger bonnet – like the one on BMW’s X6 hybrid – is to clear the complex engine control system where the engine once lived.

Inside, it’s all 1Series. The only visible change is a dashboard readout of battery life and instant energy use – and regenerative recovery.

Robertson says: “The ActiveE has proven you don’t have to have the compromises that most of the vehicles have out there at the moment. It has a proper back seat and a boot.”
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