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.
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."
Unlike Toyota and GM, BMW wasn't among major automakers that experimented on a large scale with EVs in California a decade ago. While the tests ultimately failed because battery technology hadn't matured, they learned a lot about the practical aspects of electric fleets. Now, with the Mini E field test, BMW has a chance to catch up, says Ed Kjaer, electric transportation director for Southern California Edison, a large utility that actively tests cars and batteries.
"BMW is discovering that doing an electric car — or doing a plug-in vehicle of any kind — is not an easy undertaking," Kjaer says. "But (when) BMW comes through this, they will have a body of knowledge that they didn't have. Dipping their toe in the water is going to be good strategy for them."
A few 'nits'
As Trepp lives with his silver Mini E, he's finding his share of "little nits." He wishes it had a center armrest. The 600-pound battery takes up the rear seat space, making the car a two-seater. "I miss the space in back," he says. "My wife and I went grocery shopping. We ended up (having) a bunch of groceries in my lap."
He's also had one big glitch. The car's motor shut down on his wife, Suzanne, while she was driving on the freeway, apparently having overheated. The car restarted a few minutes later.
With two young sons, he kept the family's gas-powered vehicles: an Audi Q7 SUV and a Toyota Prius hybrid. He says if he's headed out of town or on an overnight trip, he won't take the Mini E.
But he says the overall experience of piloting Mini E No. 111 — the numbers are badged on the car's side — has been great. And as the first customer, he has sort of local enviro-rock-star status.
"Right now, it's still sexy and intriguing," Trepp says. "I don't go anywhere where somebody doesn't say, 'Hey, it's the Mini E guy.' "