MILLVILLE, NJ – It’s been one year since BMW AG began leasing 600 electric Mini E coupes, and since then the initiative has generated invaluable information the auto maker is using to prepare the launch of its second EV, the ActiveE, next year.

Based on a 2-door BMW 1-Series, the ActiveE will seat four adults, whereas the Mini E had room for only two, as the backseat and cargo area were filled with massive battery packs weighing hundreds of pounds.

Unveiled at January’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the ActiveE represents BMW’s next steps toward “CO2-free mobility.”

Both the ActiveE and Mini E are intended to pave the way for BMW’s ultimate lightweight eco-friendly EV, known currently as the Megacity Vehicle and slated to arrive in 2013.

Researchers have been studying transportation needs in Los Angeles, New York, Mexico City, Barcelona, Paris, London, Tokyo and Shanghai as part of the project.

The Mini E has been leased to 450 American customers, municipalities and utility fleets (250 in southern California and 200 in New York/New Jersey), as well as 100 in Germany and 50 in the U.K.

So what has BMW learned about its Mini E customers?

That people first intended to drive the car only for commuting, but then enjoyed it so much they looked for excuses to drive more, says Richard Steinberg, manager-electric vehicle operations and strategy for BMW of North America LLC.

Mini E customers also said they didn’t need to charge their vehicles every day and eventually became astute at planning their routes to avoid anxiety about running out of power.

“People said on blogs, ‘The more I drive it, the more I take it for granted,’” Steinberg tells Ward’s at a full-line BMW media preview here at the New Jersey Motorsports Park. “The early days of worrying about running out of juice are long gone.”

The research also has found BMW customers are comfortable charging their EVs at night and do not see a need for public charging stations.

The first-year U.S. lease cost $850 per month, including collision coverage and access to a charging station. About half those private customers have asked to renew their leases for an extra year; BMW has dropped the monthly lease price for those customers to $600.

“That also allows those customers to get first in line for the ActiveE when it comes out in spring 2011,” Steinberg says. “They love their Mini E and want to stay in the car for an additional year.”

Mini Es turned in as the lease concludes have not been dispatched to the smasher. “We will refurbish all Mini Es off-lease and put them into service around the world,” Steinberg says.

Demand for the vehicles is strong in China, Japan, Switzerland, France and Brazil, he says.

BMW has not yet finalized pricing for the ActiveE when it arrives next year, but Steinberg hopes to undercut the Mini E pricetag. BMW expects again to target the ActiveE in New York and California.

“And we will look for some additional cities for additional volume, but it will still be relatively modest volume,” Steinberg says.

Unlike the front-drive Mini E, the ActiveE will feature rear-wheel-drive, a hallmark characteristic of BMW vehicles.

The electric-drive motor was designed especially for the 1-Series Coupe and is located in the rear axle. It delivers 170 hp and 184 lb.-ft. (250 Nm) of torque, allowing the ActiveE to accelerate to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 8.5 seconds.

Energy for the drive system comes from a new synchronous electric motor specifically developed for the ActiveE. Its maximum output is 170 hp, and maximum torque of 184 lb.-ft. (250 Nm) is available from a standstill, as is typical for electric motors.

The ActiveE’s advanced lithium-ion battery pack was developed by BMW and supplier SB LiMotive Co. Ltd. Expected range is the same as it was with the Mini E: about 100 miles (160 km) in everyday use.

Steinberg says the motor and battery pack add about 560 lbs. (254 kg). But without a conventional drivetrain and fuel tank, the overall curb weight comes in at an acceptable 3,900 lbs. (1,800 kg).

Integrating the motor in the rear axle also keeps the center of gravity low, making for “dynamic driving properties,” the auto maker says. The ActiveE was not available for test drives at the recent BMW event, but the Mini E was.

The auto maker predicts acceleration from zero to 62 mph (100 km/h) in less than 9 seconds for the ActiveE, as well as a maximum speed of about 90 mph (145 km/h).

On the European power grid, the battery pack can be fully charged in just three hours on a 50-amp outlet. In the U.S., that takes about 4.5 hours using a high-current 32-amp residential wall box.

The Mini E cars have held up well during the recent lease trial. “We have not seen any significant deterioration of range, but there’s been some,” he says. “Some cars have been better than others in terms of charging behavior, but it has to do with driving conditions and climate. All these things have an impact vehicle by vehicle.”

For instance, air conditioning can result in a range reduction of up to 20%, Steinberg says.

Brake force is applied very aggressively in the Mini E, even without the driver ever touching the brake pedal.

When approaching a stop sign or a turn, as soon as the driver lifts off the accelerator the electric motor performs the function of a generator, converting the vehicle's kinetic energy into electric power and storing it in the battery pack.

The result is a brake pedal that rarely sees action. In urban traffic, BMW says some 75% of all deceleration maneuvers are initiated without the brake pedal. During this brake regeneration function, the vehicle’s brake lights are illuminated. The braking effect is applied only to the rear wheels.

“When drivers live with that car over time, they express strong passion for that 1-pedal driving behavior,” Steinberg says. The feature will show up in the ActiveE.

Beyond the ActiveE, the Megacity Vehicle also is likely to showcase the 1-pedal approach.

Success of the Megacity Vehicle is vital to helping BMW achieve a fleet fuel-economy average of 35.5 mpg (6.6 L/100 km) by 2016, as mandated by the U.S. government.

The Mini E is included in BMW’s current fleet average, and the ActiveE will factor in as well when it arrives. But Steinberg says the impact of these first two vehicles will be minimal because volumes have been low.

“The Megacity Vehicle will play a much more significant role based on volume,” he says.

So if BMW wants to continue selling high-performance cars such as the M3 and Alpina B7, the brand will need strong sales of the MCV to offset the gas guzzlers.

Whether the BMW logo appears on the MCV remains to be decided, but Steinberg says a “sub-brand” likely will be set up to manage it, much like the “M” performance division.

Unlike the Mini E and ActiveE, the MCV is expected to be a global car, and available in all 50 states.

Pricing likely will reflect BMW’s premium place in the market. “But we hope to be within spitting distance of the (Chevrolet) Volt, (Nissan) Leaf and the like,” he says. Pricing is expected at $33,000 for the Leaf and below $40,000 for the Volt before state and federal incentives.

Derived from a bespoke architecture, the MCV will feature four doors and seating for four occupants. The body-in-white will be produced from carbon fiber manufactured at a new $100 million plant being built in Moses Lake, WA, by SGL Group and BMW.

The location is intended to take advantage of plentiful hydro-electric power because carbon-fiber production requires much energy and generates lots of carbon dioxide.

The raw material will arrive from Japan, and the carbon fiber will be shipped to Landshut, Germany, where the carbon-fiber reinforced plastic parts will be fabricated. Vehicle assembly will be in Leipzig, Germany.

The goal of the MCV program is to keep the same range of about 100 miles but reduce the capacity of the battery from 30 kWh to 16 kWh in a bid to reduce weight.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com