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Thursday, March 20, 2014

It's Deja Vu All Over Again

Well not exactly, but close. With the US launch of the BMW i3 only a few weeks away, the ActiveE's days are numbered. Sure BMW will likely use some of the returning ActiveE's to add to the fleet of their car sharing service DriveNow, but the majority of the returned cars will likely be decommissioned. Many of the other “Electronauts” have already returned their ActiveE’s and moved on to other electric cars, while others are waiting for the launch of the i3. For the Electronauts that have i3's on order, BMW has allowed lease extensions so they can transition seamlessly into their new i3, which is what I am doing.
This is all too familiar and as much as I have enjoyed participating in the MINI-E and ActiveE trial lease programs, I have not enjoyed the part where you have to give the car back. We all knew it was part of the deal; these aren't our cars and we knew we only had a limited time with them, but just like when the MINI-E program ended, many of the participants lament having to return the cars that they have become so attached to.

As much as I'm going to miss the ActiveE, this isn't the same as I felt when I had to return my MINI-E. I really loved that car. It wasn't as sophisticated as the ActiveE and it wasn't as well engineered. It didn't have heated leather seats or a thermal management system. You couldn't set it to precondition and it didn't have a back seat or a trunk. was one helluva fun little car. With the ActiveE I feel a little like I traded in my sneakers and t-shirt for a pinstripe suit. Sure I may look better in the suit, but in my opinion the ActiveE lacked a little of the soul the MINI-E had. The ActiveE was definitely a great EV and had all the amenities and luxury you'd expect in a proper BMW, but to me something was missing.

The ActiveE launch event at BMW HQ
Maybe it was just that the MINI-E was my first electric car and nothing will be able to compare to it now. It was the car that showed me the world of electric drive, and how plugging beats filling up any way you slice it. Back in 2011 BMW selected me to be the first person to take delivery of an ActiveE and I can remember the launch event at BMW headquarters like it was only a few weeks ago. BMW CEO Ludwig Willisch made a short speech and then handed me the microphone to say some words and the first thing I said to him was "Are you sure I can't keep my MINI-E". I'm not so sure Willisch or anybody at BMW appreciated that since this was the ActiveE launch party but that was how I felt. I don't feel like that with the ActiveE though, and I can see handing back the keys next month without feeling hardly any remorse.

My MINI-E was really a blast to drive
That's not to say I haven't enjoyed my time with the ActiveE, because I definitely have. It really was the best choice for me once the MINI-E program ended. Back when I got my ActiveE there really wasn't another electric car I would rather have as my daily driving vehicle. Since then, the Tesla Model S came out and has taken electric cars to a new level but the i3 is really the EV that I want which is why I'm getting one. I definitely have considered moving on to a Model S, but I just can't see myself driving a car that is so large; it's really just too much car for me. My time with the ActiveE has been fun, and I have been luckier than many of the other Electronauts since my cars have had very little problems, while some others haven't been so lucky. I do think part of what I miss from the MINI-E is the performance. The ActiveE holds it's own, but it's not really a fast car. You do get the great instant torque acceleration that electric cars provide, but at 4,000lbs it's just too heavy for the 170hp motor. Zero to sixty times of nine-plus seconds just doesn't cut it in my book, and I want a little more performance from my car. The MINI-E was a full second faster 0-60 than the ActiveE is and it actually felt like there was an even bigger difference. The i3 on the other hand is about a second faster than the MINI-E was, which makes it two seconds faster to 60mph than the ActiveE is, and you can definitely feel it. Shaving about 1,300lbs off the weight off the ActiveE while using the same motor makes a huge difference and gives the i3 even more punch than the MINI-E while it retains the refinement of the ActiveE.

The i3's has more interior room than the AE
Besides better performance the i3 charges much faster than the ActiveE, especially since BMW dialed back the charging rate of the ActiveE a few months ago because of problems with the onboard charger (which incidentally has been redesigned for the i3). It now takes me six hours to fully charge the ActiveE and that's terribly inconvenient for someone that drives a lot like I do. I'm now only getting about 15 miles per hour of charging and the i3 will likely get me 25 to 30 miles per hour of charging, which will be a welcomed improvement and allow me to drive it more. The i3 also has much more interior volume than the ActiveE with roomier front and rear seating and can accept more cargo than the ActiveE since its trunk is compromised by the intrusion of the power electronics. Roll that in with the fact the i3 is a gigantic leap forward in automotive technology being the first mass produced car ever to employ a carbon fiber body with an aluminum chassis and plastic outer panels. The i3 uses 70% less water a typical car needs during manufacturing process, much of the materials used come from recycled or sustainable sources and the Leipzig plant where they are made is powered entirely by renewable energy. These things matter to me and while they aren't paramount, they do add to the i3's appeal.
I drove my MINI-E to the ActiveE launch ceremony, and drove home in the ActiveE. BMW cleaned up the MINI-E and put it on display next to my ActiveE for the event.

Is my indifference to returning the ActiveE primarily because it wasn't my first EV, or is it the fact that I believe the i3 is so much better than the ActiveE that I'm just looking forward to getting it so I've already mentally moved on. I really don't know, but I am glad this is my last forced-goodby. From now on, how long I have my electric car will be decided solely by how long I want to keep it, and not by a manufacturer that decided it's reached its expiration date. However I definitely do not regret participating in BMW's trial lease e-mobility programs at all, in fact it's been a fantastic ride. For the past five years I have had the opportunity to drive two great electric vehicles and I am really inspired by how far we've come since I got my MINI-E in 2009. Back when I got my MINI-E the only choice to drive electric was to buy a $110,000 Tesla Roadster or build your own EV. Now there are over a dozen cars that plug in and they range from a high end luxury sedan that goes 265 miles per charge to affordable PHEV's that are within many family budgets. The auto industry generally moves at a glacial pace, so even though many people aren't happy with how quickly (or slowly) EV's are advancing, what we have seen in the past half a decade is indeed a huge step forward. The electrification of the automobile industry is indeed underway, even if many people don't realize it just yet.