Every now and then, a car company tests new technologies on its customers. The Chrysler Turbine Car, the GM EV1 and the Honda FCX Clarity fuel-cell car have all plied public roads as rolling science projects, searching for an alternative to the piston-engine hegemony. While we never ended up driving turbine-powered Challengers to work, manufacturers continue to send their experiments out into the wild, gathering data that might soon serve a showroom-ready model.
The BMW ActiveE belongs to this ilk, an electric-powered 1-Series coupe that's proving the technology that will eventually underpin BMW's i-Series cars. BMW leased its allotment of ActiveEs for $499 per month with $2,250 down, a price that makes it clear that BMW is subsidizing your lease payment to further its electric car program. (All 700 ActiveEs are spoken for, but BMW will rent you one by the half-hour in San Francisco.)
As a retrofitted internal-combustion car, the ActiveE's packaging isn't as slick as that of a purpose-built EV. The rear-mounted motor takes up a lot of trunk space and the hood bulges to cover batteries and associated hardware. But behind the wheel, the ActiveE drives like a 1-Series—a heavy, quiet 1-Series, but clearly a BMW. While the electric motor's 170 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of torque aren't enough to keep up with the likes of a 128i, the instant torque makes the ActiveE feel snappier than its numbers suggest. At 80 mph through a sweeping corner, you aren't thinking about what's under the hood. And that's the point.
The ActiveE is good for 100 miles of range, a claim I found entirely believable. With a Level 2 charger, you can add 25 miles of range in an hour. I have a feeling that when those 24-month leases are up, ActiveE drivers will be wailing and rending garments to keep their sweet-handling electric BMWs. But maybe by then, the ActiveE will have done its job and spawned something else for the showrooms. Something you can drive home and keep.