I have been driving #148 for a few days now and am starting to get the feel of it.
The car definitely drives like a manual transmission. Everything from the slight roll back when stopping on a hill to the feel when cornering. The regenerative braking allows you to "downshift" and engine brake into turns and allows you to take most turns without touching the brake. I have been able to verify the mileage that I expected to get from the car. Given my round trip commute of around 30 miles, I really only need to charge up every three days or so. It is easy enough though to do every night and you never know if we will decide to go a bit more, so best to always start with a full charge.
I feel I have driven enough though to form some impressions.
Read on for the Good, the Bad, and the Unknown...
- The Promise. The car delivers on its promise of a commuter electric vehicle that has no problem with daily commutes at freeway speed.
- The Feel. It feels like a well made new car. No rigged together conversion. Everything feels well thought out and the "electric-ness" feels natural.
- The Drive. It takes getting used to a new way to drive with the aggressive regen braking. But once you start to feel it, it is good. You feel more in control of your momentum. I finally smoothly cruise into a stop and silently glide away without hitting the brakes. It took a while, but I like it.
- The Process. Some may have had some difficulty, but the process was completely smooth for me (if taking a while). I commend Mini on dealing with the issues and hiring pros to do the work. Clean Fuel Connection, who did the charger hook up, were efficient, timely, did solid clean work and so deserve particular mention.
- The Quiet. Nothing quite matches rolling along the beach in electric cruise. Silently rolling by listening to the surf and sounds. The commute was never bad but now is quite nice.
- The Feeling. Driving it, you feel like you are onto something and wish everyone could experience it. Once people get a real test of a full electric ride, they will be hooked.
- The Fun. Zipping through traffic, throwing yourself back in your seat as you step on the gas, watching people as the vision of "golf cart" gets stripped from their faces.
- Approachability. The "software" is not designed to be approachable. Particularly the hesitation at start that makes you feel like something is wrong and the aggressive regen are turn-offs on first drive. Anyone test driving this on the lot (without prejudice to electric) will say "it drives weird." That is not the first impression you want to make on a car lot. Everyone who has test drove it with me has said a variation of this. But this is easy to address. It is clearly just software. Add a "newbie" mode that drives just like a Prius (or whatever) and sure it doesn't get the same range. Then have a "EV" mode that does aggressive reg and smooths the accel curves and such. I said I like regen, but not at first. Heck, even add a "performance" mode that maxes out the performance curves at the expense of range. Easy. It's just software.
- The Rollback. I don't get the lack of grab at a stop. The regen kicks in hard as you come to a stop, then magically, once the velocity is below a magic point, it shuts off. This causes you on any kind of hill to roll back as if you are a manual trans with the clutch in. Completely annoying and just unneeded. I drove a stick for years and can two foot it with the best, but why do I need to do so on an advanced tech electric. Just lock the rollback at a stop. Easy. Again, it is just software. EDIT (6/19/09): Mini just sent an update about this mentioning the "Hill Assist" feature which will hold the brakes for 2 seconds while you start. I tried this out and it indeed works. However, it seems to only work on inclines of somewhere around 5% or more. Basically, a real hill. The most common time I have an issue though is on a slight incline at a light. Here people really tend to ride up close to you more so than on a hill, and you still roll back. So if they applied this software to anytime you come to a complete stop, I think it would be better.
- Lack of creep. The Prius models a slight (some would say too aggressive) creep when you let off the brake at a stop. But it is really nice for adjusting position or dealing with slight stop and go. In the Mini, once stopped, I have to fully engage the gas again to creep forward a half-car length in traffic. Coupled with the lag at start, when you start driving the car, you find yourself wanting to creep forward, pressing that gas, finding it isn't responding so press it harder, then going too fast and having to hit the brake. Give someone a test drive and watch them lurch and you will know what I mean. So let's update the software already.
- Room. It is tiny. Really, tiny. If you have to take two people with luggage, you are in trouble. I realize it is a proto vehicle built as a conversion really on an existing vehicle. But I really don't think adding another two feet in the back would have killed the range that much. Mini has longer cars. It is fine for the test program, but a car like this will never work for the majority even for commuting with that room.
- Cost. Obviously, this car serves a great roll for the commuter or person who doesn't drive that much during the week. But it will eventually need to be priced as such. Batteries will come down making this possible I beleive.
- Range. The mileage works for me and will for most people I believe. Hardly anyone actually drives that much on almost any days. However, you need to think about it. You need to plan. You can't drive out to the edge, then decide you need to make one more stop to another town. You have to think back to when you needed to plan you trips out. Optimize the errands to eliminate unneeded back and forths. It is the stuff we should be all doing and it is not hard. But I am not clear if people can do it.
- Aftermarket Software. Seems like a good opportunity as these cars come online. Clearly a lot of the feel and personality is coming out of the software on this car. It seems very likely that there will be a nice aftermarket niche for companies to offer customized software for these cars to suite individual tastes. Something I need to look into more and think about for the future.
I am still very enthusiastic and excited by this experience. I find myself anxious to drive the car again which is really nice. I can't wait till the day I can get one of these and actually cruise the whole coast charging up along the way. Still a lot to learn.
EDIT (6/19): Ironically, this morning the mail sent to trial participants discusses both the regen and the rollback issue. It points out:
"Every MINI including the MINI E has a vehicle stability system called Hill Start Assist. Hill Start Assist engages when you firmly press on the brake pedal. The system engages and holds the car for 2 seconds once you lift your foot off the brake pedal. This gives you time to move your foot to the accelerator and press it normally before the car begins to roll."
I will definitely try this out and see if it helps with the roll issue.