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Quick Drive: Turner Motorsport 2012 BMW ActiveE

In June of 2009, BMW’s MINI division introduced the MINI E. This machine was a field trial of electric vehicles opened up to the public for the term of a lease. A total of 450 cars were let loose in the New York City and Los Angles areas. The goal was to obtain real world data on electric vehicles and feedback from the operators.

The 2012 1-series based BMW ActiveE is continuation of the field trial started by the MINI E. When I contacted BMW about the ActiveE, I did not get a response. Hooniverse isn’t exactly high on the automaker’s radar. We have good friends though, and the car shown here is leased by Will Turner, owner of Turner Motorsport, a well known BMW racing team and tuner. We’ll have more on Turner Motorsport in the near future. For now, let’s take a look at the ActiveE.

Having had the opportunity to drive the MINI E two years ago I can understand why that car did not generate good impressions. The rear seat was removed and the whole area behind the front seats was taken up by batteries, which were covered by cheap carpeting. The throttle was an on/off switch and the whole thing provided an aura of someone’s project car rather than something sold by a major automaker. What many, especially the press, failed to understand, however, was that it was in fact someone’s project car, loaned the public. Just a project car produced by a rather large entity, and not Jimbo down in his garage.

The ActiveE 1-series, stickers aside, does not look any different than any entry-level 128i. Diehard propeller-heads will note the smaller Euro-spec wheels, an eDrive badge, and the lack of an exhaust pipe. Much to its credit, the differences between the MINI E and its conventional counterpart were along this line too. Where the ActiveE differs from the MINI E styling approach becomes apparent on the inside. 

This electric BMW retains its rear seat, and is overall more retail-ready than the project car that was the MINI E. The white trim is ActiveE specific, as is the gauge cluster. The biggest change from the MINI E, however, is the use of liquid to, not only cool the batteries, but to improve cold-weather performance. The motor in the ActiveE is now in the rear, incorporated with the rear axle, and the batteries take up half of the engine compartment and the transmission tunnel.

The ActiveE is offered in only one trim, and it’s one that keeps the weight low and attempts to minimizes battery usage: no sunroof, non-sport manual seats, and electronic climate control. The tachometer is replaced by a gauge which moves in a similar fashion to a tach, but provides instant state of battery charge or discharge; essentially an amp-meter clamped between the motor and the batteries as seen in cars of yesteryear. The Fuel gauge is still a fuel gauge but reads the amount of energy left in the battery as opposed to displaying available dino juice.

I chatted with Will before driving the car, and he said that his plan was to use it to commute between his home and the Turner Motorsport HQ. He did not know what to expect from the car, but it certainly intrigued him. He also plans on using it as a research vehicle, seeing that BMW’s i3 and i8 concepts will likely use ActiveE’s technology. BMW says that the driving range from full charge on the ActiveE is about a 100 miles, but Will says that he drives the car with somewhat of a heavy foot, more like an M3 than some green machine, and his range therefore drops to about 70 miles indicated. The one thing he kept emphasizing was how much fun the car was to drive, with grins from to ear-to-ear produced every time he’s behind the wheel.

Now it’s my turn behind the wheel.

Lights spring up on the dash and a few relays click once the “Start/Stop Engine” button is pressed. The silence is almost eerie as the conventional BMW electronic shifter slots into D. Take your foot off the brake and… nothing happens. There is no typical automatic transmission roll, the car just sits there. Using light pressure, press the accelerator pedal and the ActiveE will quietly start moving. Take your foot off the “gas” pedal and it will start slowing down, rather quickly too. It’s a good idea to practice that whole starting and stopping thing in the parking lot.

Once out of the parking lot, I accelerated more and, before I realized it, I too was grinning from ear-to-ear. It’s not a fast car (0-60mph in about 8.5 seconds) but the torque-y motor combined with rear-wheel-drive gives a sense of being steadily pushed. It’s a feeling similar to driving a diesel or a V12 engine in high gear at low speed and accelerating without downshifting; steady linear push.

Merging onto the highway and accelerating further was rather uneventful; uninterrupted linear acceleration, no gear changes, no loud noises, no drama. The only noise inside the car was the quiet whine of the electric motor, which increased in frequency with speed. Unlike other hybrid/electric cars I have driven, the wind/tire noise was kept to a minimum. I wouldn’t be surprised if BMW put some extra insulation in this car.

Before I knew it I was pushing on 90mph, in an electric car! Will was right; the ear-to-ear grin has not gone away. Time to slow down – I took my foot off the accelerator, and it’s as if someone put on the brakes. The key is to be smooth and linear with the “throttle” application and the ActiveE will respond is a similar fashion. Think back to your childhood and the first time you played with an RC car, and you’ll get it right.

Imagine the sound of a big V8, one with a lumpy cam and a set of headers that give it that tinny sound. Think of your favorite DOHC engine at WOT, at the top of its rev limit. Think of a turbo whistle on that first cool night of the summer. Those are the sounds that give gearheads goose bumps. The ActiveE does not make those sounds. Much like a Miata however, it will make you grin ear-to-ear. The electric vehicle technology is still in its infancy, but the BMW ActiveE is the first vehicle on the market which promises enthusiasts that cars will never become boring soulless appliances.

Big thanks to Will Turner, everyone and Turner Motorsport, and Miguel at VelozMedia for giving me the opportunity to drive this unique vehicle.