When you see the 2012 BMW ActiveE, the first thing that will probably come to mind is that BMW’s product planners have been watching way too much Tron lately. With vinyl graphics simulating wires adorning the sides of the ActiveE, it’s easy to laugh it off at first glance. Then you notice its “power dome” bulging hood…and its complete lack of an exhaust pipe.
And then after a few minutes, it hits you: This car isn’t the work of a designer letting his 10-year-old son loose at BMW’s studios on a 1 Series. It’s a 100-percent electric car, brought to you by the self-proclaimed makers of ultimate driving machines.
So is it any good?
In all honesty, a 30-minute jaunt exploring the coastal roads of Monterey, Calif., isn’t enough time for a thorough evaluation of any car. But it is enough to make a first impression, and the ActiveE definitely impressed.
From the driver’s perspective, the first thing you notice is the change from brushed aluminum or wood trip on the dashboard to a white plastic with the “ActiveE” logo baked into it. The interior materials feel cheaper than the aforementioned wood or metal you’d get in a standard 1 Series, but it’s recycled. And recycled is good when you’re building a car that touts sustainability. You then notice the gauges are different, with a “Charge” meter taking the place the fuel readout.
Aside from the dashboard, the interior is accented with blue stitching on the steering wheel and black leather seats. It’s missing the Steptronic shift-it-yourself automatic function carried by most other new BMWs, but this car doesn’t have a six- or eight-speed automatic. It has a single gear hooked up to a 170-horsepower electric motor.
With it, the ActiveE is able to comfortably push up to highway speeds with little effort. We saw 80 mph and had to back off after not realizing just how fast it was going. The ActiveE sounds like a vacuum cleaner through a pair of earmuffs. And if you turn on the radio, the drivetrain becomes inaudible.
But making an electric car comfortable on the highway is easy. Historically, BMWs separate themselves from the pack when the road gets narrower and starts snaking around a hillside. In this environment, you can tell it packs some additional girth under its sheetmetal; an extra 800 pounds over the 3,200-pound weight of the 1 Series it’s based on. So it felt softer over bumps than most BMWs, but still handled admirably. The steering felt as hefty as any other BMW.
Brake pedals in electric vehicles have also suffered the same flaws attributed with lack of feel. But BMW did its homework, making the pedal firm and providing it with ample feedback. In many instances, however, it may not even be necessary, as the car has a tendency to slow itself down with its heavy weight and high-friction magnets slowing the electric motor.
All and all, it’s a pretty easy, fun car to drive. So what’s the catch?
Its trunk is nearly useless, with its battery pack intruding on what used to be cargo space, albeit one shrouded in a cool cover with “ActiveE” embossed on it. Like most electric cars, it’s limited to a 100-mile range in driving, meaning this car will likely only be an upscale alternative to a Nissan Leaf.
And it’s not for sale. That’s right, of the 700 BMW ActiveE coupes allocated for the U.S., all of them are to be leased for two years only, $2250 down and $499 per month. BMW will likely recycle the ActiveE 1 Series coupes it doesn’t keep around after its model run.
But if you’re in the market for an premium, sporty electric car after such time, fret not. By the time the BMW ActiveE comes and goes, the Bavarian automaker should have its lighter, more versatile BMW i3 and BMW i8 electric cars on the road, using many of the same electric components to power them, including the 170-horsepower motor for the i3.
If the 2012 BMW ActiveE is any indication to the refinement and sportiness BMW plans to introduce in those upcoming cars, consider us charged up on the electric bandwagon.