Image: Mini E electric car
Fred Prouser  /  Reuters
The Mini E electric car is shown at the Los Angeles auto show. The car will be powered by a 150 kW (204 hp) electric motor fed by a high-performance rechargeable lithium-ion battery.
updated 11/20/2008 5:02:02 PM ET 2008-11-20T22:02:02

Mini unveiled an all-electric car for lease on a limited basis Tuesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show, as the small-car company tests the waters in the electric vehicle market.

The BMW Group unit will begin accepting lease applications this week for 450 of its Mini E electric cars from customers in California, New York and New Jersey for $850 a month, and expects to have customers lined up by March.

Jim McDowell, head of Mini’s U.S. operations, said the company has already received more than 10,000 inquiries for the car on its Web site.

“What we’re doing right now is really just trying to get some experience with it,” he said. “What it means is the BMW Group is anticipating the needs of our world, as opposed to responding.”

The two-seater Mini E runs on a lithium-ion battery, the same that will help power General Motors Corp.’s much-touted Chevrolet Volt. The battery gets about 150 miles per charge, the company said, and on a 240-volt outlet takes about four and a half hours to charge.

Like other electric cars, the charge time rules out the Mini E as a road-trip vehicle and limits it to shorter commutes. But McDowell said the car’s target is eco-conscious big-city dwellers.

“There are these very important world metropolises, where congestion is so extreme that driving to work takes on an entirely different dimension than it does in the rest of the world and the rest of the United States,” McDowell said.

McDowell said Mini will produce 500 of the cars, 450 of which will go to its one-year U.S. lease program, which opens to online applicants on Friday. He declined to reveal the company’s plans for the remaining 50.

The program is designed to test the car’s performance in the real world, and the criteria for a lease will be strict, McDowell said. For example, along with limiting leaseholders geographically, it will also require them to have lockable garages with the wiring needed to install the car’s charging equipment.

“It has a tremendous electric draw when it charges,” McDowell said. Based on average electric rates in the areas the company is targeting, charging the car will cost roughly half as much as filling a tank at recent gasoline prices, he said.

Mini said it wants leaseholders who are be “pioneering” in spirit, he said. They are expected to report to Mini on a regular basis on the car’s performance. The company wants to know the little things — how are consumers adapting to driving an electric car? Are they remembering to keep it charged?

A half-hour test drive revealed just how stark the differences between the Mini E and a gas-powered car are. The pure-electric powertrain is bracingly silent, save for a soft whirring sound while the car accelerates.

The interior is retro and minimalist. A giant, glowing speedometer rests on the dashboard above the gear shift, while a slightly smaller gauge above the steering wheel indicates the remaining charge on a 0 to 100 percent scale. Instead of rear seats is a compartment that houses the car’s large battery.

The car — dark gray with “Mini E” printed in lime green on the side — attracted some stares, particularly at a gas station, where pedestrians approached to take pictures and a bewildered attendant opened the gas cap, revealing the car’s charging outlet.

McDowell dismissed concerns that the rapidly falling price of gasoline might dampen the car’s appeal. Consumers have already been spooked by this summer’s surge in fuel prices, he said, and Mini customers are fuel-conscious types anyway.

“I can guarantee you that existing Mini customers will be the first 100 that submit their applications,” he said.

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