First Drive: BMW ActiveE Prototype
Based on the 1 Series Coupe, the ActiveE is the latest in a line of BMW and MINI test cars built to glean data about real-world usage to inform the production version of the i3.
In the UK, the ActiveE was part of the London 2012 Olympic Games fleet, and small number of cars have since been touring fleet decision makers and leasing companies across the country as the carmaker prepares for the launch of its electric sub-brand.
Under the boot floor, as it is in the i3, is a 168bhp electric motor and single-speed gearbox, supplied by a battery under the bonnet and rear seats. Save for some futuristic graphics, a bonnet bulge and small alloy wheels it offers few clues of the technology that propels it.
The drivetrain clicks silently into action with a touch of the button next to the instrument binnacle, at which point a needle moves around to ‘Ready’ with a display showing the remaining battery life. Forward and reverse gears are selected using the familiar paddle-shaped BMW gearstick, which again feels entirely conventional.
But it doesn’t take long to realise that this really is something very special and rather unique to drive. Prod the throttle and it surges up to motorway speeds with silent ease, unrelenting due to the single-speed gearbox, settling to a smooth gliding mode at part throttle. Lift off completely and it reverses the polarity of the electric motor, regenerating electricity and acting as a brake.
It’s the latter which is unusual, even for an electric vehicle. For all except the most severe braking manoeuvres, the ActiveE can be driven just using the throttle pedal, rapidly scrubbing off speed as required. Because this braking is done at the rear wheels, not at the front, it does so without pitching forward heavily. BMW is carrying this forward to the i3, claiming 75% of braking can be done without using the middle pedal.
There’s a surprising agility to it, as well. While the additional weight – the ActiveE weighs 1,815kg, which is 395kg heavier than a 118d Coupe – is noticeable while cornering, its centre of gravity is fairly low. The i3 will use a futuristic carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) body and lighter suspension components to bring this down to 1,195kg, but unlike the ActiveE it’s designed as an electric model from the offset.
For a prototype, though, the ActiveE bodes well. It’s great fun to drive, solidly engineered and true to BMW’s driver-focused identity. The signs are promising for the production i3.
Held back only by the weight and packaging disadvantes of being based on a conventional 1 Series, the ActiveE paints a promising picture of what’s to come from the lighter and more advanced i3.
Segment: Lower medium
Type: Battery-electric vehicle
Price: N/A (prototype)
Electric range: 100 miles
CO2 emissions (tailpipe): 0g/km
Charging Port: J1772