Once again, gasoline prices are on the rise. The escalation has slowed a bit as I write this, but for a couple of weeks it seemed that the prices were changing on a daily basis. Thankfully, they’re not anywhere near the staggering price level we saw last year at this time.
Whenever the cost of filling the tank starts taking a bigger bite out of the weekly budget, many people start thinking about fuel efficiency, especially if they’re going to be in the market for a new car soon. Surveys have shown that most Americans are planning to buy a more economical vehicle the next time they head to the showroom.
One example of a pretty fuel efficient car is the sporty MINI Cooper, which has become a kind of chic fashion accessory all over town. The stubby retro-styled coupe can easily achieve 30 miles per gallon or more in normal use, even though it’s really fun to drive.
Soon, you’re likely to see an even more efficient MINI on the road. It actually doesn’t post any kind of gas mileage figure, because it’s powered solely by an electric motor and a large battery pack. This is the new MINI E, which is now being leased to selected customers in Southern California and parts of the East Coast. For the next year, 400 of the little high-tech gems (250 of those in SoCal) will be in the hands of customers for a sort of extended test drive.
Peter Trepp of Pacific Palisades is one of the lucky few, and could actually be considered the luckiest of all. He was the first to take delivery of a MINI E, after being selected from about 2000 applicants. To qualify, he had to convince the company (MINI’s parent, BMW North America) that he would be a good candidate to not only use the car, but promote its virtues as well.
So after seeing the car at last year’s L.A. Auto Show, he got to work to get accepted to lease the car. He started his own online blog, writing about how much he’d like to have one and how he hoped it would be a success, with or without him behind the wheel. For his efforts, Peter was handed the key to MINI E #111 at Bob Smith MINI in Calabasas a few weeks ago. (Each of the 450 MINI Es gets a three-digit number on the fender.)
Since then, he’s given dozens of rides in the car, added extensively to his blog, and even made the front page of his neighborhood newspaper. His wife Suzanne also ordered special personalized M&Ms in the distinct gray and yellow color scheme of the car, bags of which they hand out to friends and neighbors.
When I spoke to Peter at his home exactly two weeks into his stewardship, he was just giddy about the car. Prior to taking delivery, an electrical crew installed the special charging unit in his garage, which is part of the $850 per month lease price. He estimates that a full recharge- which takes 3 to 4 hours- will cost him about $7. Driving range is around 100 miles, so considering how much gasoline that money will buy today; it’s a pretty cheap way to get around.
But there is that $850 per month lease rate, which isn’t cheap at all. The way Peter Trepp figures it, he’s actually getting a bargain, as it’s obvious that BMW isn’t making any money on the deal. Instead, both the car maker and the lessees are chalking it up to the study of electric vehicles, as they’ll get valuable data on how feasible these cars would be for mass production.
There is another downside to the pollution-free electric MINI: no back seat. Since the battery pack takes up a substantial amount of space, it’s been placed in the space normally occupied by rear passengers. Effectively, the car becomes a two-seater, but most MINIs you see on the road only have one or two people in them anyway.
The driving experience also takes a little getting used to. I got to drive one last fall in advance of the L.A. Auto Show, and the main adjustment a driver needs to make is with the throttle. When coasting, you don’t just let off the accelerator as you do with a conventional car. Doing so causes the car to decelerate substantially, as it uses regenerative braking to put energy back into the battery. Instead, you have to re-train your right foot to maintain gentle pressure on the pedal until you actually want to slow down.
Electric vehicles will not be the total answer to our energy needs for the future, but they will be a piece of the puzzle, especially for short trips around town. By the end of the month, all 250 MINI Es should be in local customers’ hands and zipping around the streets and freeways.
And if you see #111 in the next lane, that’s a happy Peter Trepp behind the wheel. Give him a wave and a thumbs up if you like. He’ll probably wave back…and might even mention you in his blog.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.