Electric car Mini E brings fun to max for its first driver

As much as Peter Trepp loves to drive his new electric car, he can't quite get over the sensation.

"It feels like someone is pulling you on a string," he says. "Everyone just loves it."

Trepp is one of hundreds of motorists on the East and West Coasts taking part in the "field trial" of the Mini E, a plug-in Mini. It's the first large batch of next-generation electric cars given a real-world test in the U.S. by a major automaker. BMW, which owns the Mini brand, now has 450 cars leased to customers such as Trepp and in fleets.

BMW isn't alone among big makers pushing forward with electric vehicles (EVs). General Motors' Chevy Volt, an electric car with gasoline-powered generation onboard, is supposed to go on sale late next year. Nissan plans to have pure electrics for sale within a couple of years, and just received a $1.6 billion loan from the U.S. government to develop EVs and advanced batteries.

A head-turner

Trepp was the first customer for the Mini E trial, with the car arriving near Memorial Day. He says he turns heads everywhere he goes. "It's been so much fun. I feel like I've really gotten used to the torque the car delivers."

A test drive around his swanky Pacific Palisades neighborhood reveals what he's talking about. The Mini E, converted to electric power by AC Propulsion of San Dimas, Calif., zooms from a stop. As soon as you let your foot off the accelerator — not a "gas pedal" in this car — the "regenerative" braking that also charges the battery starts slowing the car immediately.

Trepp says his guests expect the experience to be like driving a souped-up golf cart. Not so. "I tell them to put on their seat belt and hang on."

Trepp, a venture capitalist specializing in environmentally focused companies, recharges the Mini E from a unit installed in his two-car garage. He uses the car mostly for his 15-mile round-trip daily commute in congested Los Angeles. Mini E has a range on paper of 156 miles per charge, though Trepp says about 100 miles is proving to be realistic. The high-voltage charger takes about five hours to completely juice up the battery.

Mini's rollout of electric cars has been slowed by delays for customers to get their recharging units installed. In some cases, especially on the East Coast, local inspectors have balked at approving the units because the cables lack Underwriters Laboratories approval, which is pending. That has forced many Mini E enthusiasts to charge their cars from standard 110-volt wall sockets — taking up to 23 hours to fill the battery — until the issue is resolved, Mini E spokeswoman Nathalie Bauters says.

Those drivers won't have to pay their full $850-a-month one-year lease for the car, she says, and the problem is expected to be fixed by the end of this month.

These early customers are important to Mini "because they are ambassadors" for the technology, Bauters says.

Advocates agree. "The success of these early programs is crucial to the movement," says Chelsea Sexton, founder of the Lightning Rod Foundation, which is promoting electric cars.

BMW deserves credit for being the first big maker to put a large number of advanced EVs in consumers' hands, Sexton says. But if it doesn't quickly fix the charging issue, "They are guaranteeing virgin customers a poor experience."

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