While it may look stylish, BMW's all-eletric Mini E has been a cautionary tale for future mass market EV attempts. The plug-ins have suffered from a variety of problems.  (Source: The Sag Harbor Express)

Mini E owners have found their vehicles running out of charge and needing to be towed. Others have been forced to resort to stealing electricity from businesses to get enough juice to make it home.  (Source: Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
Many are saying the woes of BMW's Mini E are a sign of problems to come for Nissan, GM, Ford, and others

BMW became the first EV maker to release an electric vehicle affordable enough for the average consumer to try one.  While lease quantities of the vehicle, the Mini E EV, are scarce (the lease fleet consists of less than 500 vehicles), they represent a significant milestone. At $850 USD/month, the leased vehicle represents the only EV currently on the U.S. market offered at an affordable price.  Granted, the program is heavily funded by the company's internal research investments, tax subsidies, and grants from governments worldwide, however, many hoped it to be a solid start to the growing movement to release affordable EVs.

That start appears to be a bit rockier than EV advocates pictured, though.  Across the country participants in the program are expressing a variety of frustrations including irritation at poor range, lack of charging stations, and poor performance in hot or cold weather.  While these problems won't necessarily effect every EV, they are relatively universal -- for example, GM's engineering team says the 2011 Chevy Volt EV may not be a good fit for customers in the U.S. Southwest, due to performance issues in hot weather.

Unlike the Volt, though, the Mini E is a pure electric.  This makes it more akin to the upcoming 2011 Nissan Leaf EV.  Under normal conditions it gets about 100 miles on a charge, with a max-range of 150 miles, similar stats to Nissan's (the Leaf's target range is 100 real-world miles).

The lack of a gas engine backup is presenting even more new problems.  Nationwide there only 734 reported EV charging stations, mostly located in California, while there are 117,000+ gas stations.  This makes it hard to find places to charge when on the road and away from home. 

A company called Ecotality has paired with Nissan to deploy 7,000 EV recharge stations nationwide, with the help of a $100M USD government grant.  However, that does little to help drivers who have already run out of juice.  With a gas car, you could simply walk to the station and bring gas back to your vehicle in a can.  You can't do that with an EV, so their use requires more planning, and can create headaches at times, users are discovering.

Paul Heitmann, a Mini E leaser, recalls a close call where he almost ran out of power, before spotting a powered Coke machine at a gas station.  He remembers, "I thought 'Finally!' because I knew if there was light, there would be electricity.  I sat there looking at the gas pumps that said $2.45 a gallon.  And I thought, 'What I wouldn't give to be able to use that.' Two and a half dollars, and I could have gotten another 25 miles."

Of course, as his story indicates, the system is flawed -- desperate EV owners are stealing electricity from sources they can find, for lack of an official charging/payment infrastructure.  And it's hardly a pleasant experience for the energy thieves either -- Mr. Heitmann had to sit for an hour in the dark, waiting for his car to recharge.

Weather is yet another problem for virtually all EVs approaching the market, save perhaps expensive models like the Tesla Roadster.  In the cold the Mini Es' range -- already less than half that of a gas vehicle -- drops even more, to 80 miles or less.  Comments Robert Hooper, 44, a computer manager from New Jersey and Mini E leaser, "I was shocked.  I'm nervous."

Timothy Gill, 59, a software engineer from Maplewood, N.J., had his Mini E towed after it ran out of charge on a cold winter day.  He blogged, "Towed! After only 87.8 miles. . . . Sheesh!"

Jim O'Donnell, chairman and chief executive of BMW North America, admits that the experiences are indicative of a rocky road ahead for the EV movement.  He states, "I would argue that the case for the electric car is not proven.  We're not quite sure people are willing to go for it. We're asking consumers to pay more and get less. Our view is: Proceed with caution."

However, with many manufacturers like GM, Ford, and Nissan planning mass-market launches of 10,000 units per year or more, it may be sink or swim time for the movement's mass market appeal.  With all the problems afflicting the Mini E, the real question is whether these players are pushing EVs to market prematurely, and risk permanently damaging customers image of plug-in vehicles.

Still, some remain optimistic.  Timothy Gill, another Mini E leaser cheers, "The car is a joy."

His license plate reads "WHY GAS."  

"It's okay. The scenarios aren't that clear. But it's good looking. [Steve Jobs] does good design, and [the iPad] is absolutely a good example of that." -- Bill Gates on the Apple iPad

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