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BMW plugs-in a Mini with sporty sales pitch

BMW is signing up green-minded drivers to test an all-electric Mini Cooper with two seats, just enough storage space for a gym bag, and a range of only 193 kilometers before recharging, all for triple the cost of the gasoline-powered model.

Bayerische Motoren Werke will lease 250 of its new Mini Es in Southern California and 200 in metropolitan New York and New Jersey by March. Applicants, who will pay US$850 a month for the zero-emissions car for one year, are outnumbering the models available by 4-to-1, according to the Munich-based car maker.

BMWís electric experiment beats Nissan and General Motors in delivering a fully alternative-fuel vehicle to drivers concerned about gas prices and global warming. Sporting a luxury automobile brand name and being first to take corners in an environmentally-friendly car trump functionality, said Mario Soto, a Southern Californian who signed up for one of the two-seaters.

ìIíve got to take my kids to school, so the car makes no sense for me from a practical point of view,? said Soto, a 45-year-old graphic designer and father of three. ìBut I kinda want to be part of this.?

BMWís Mini Cooper, almost 1.2 meters shorter than a Toyota Camry, becomes electric by sacrificing its back seat to fit a 260-kilogram battery. What the Mini E lacks in comfort and range it may pick up in cute and cool points. The noise-free engine goes from zero to 60 in 8.5 seconds, more than enough muscle to compete in Manhattan traffic on a recent test drive.

The Mini E boasts a braking system that lets drivers slow the car the old-fashioned way with the pedal, or by releasing the accelerator, which uses ìregenerative braking.? That slows the car by transferring energy to the battery.

ìPeople that are intrigued about what our lives are going to be like a decade or decades from now are exactly the kind of people that are going to be interested,? Jim McDowell, Miniís chief for North America, said. ìThey want to tell their children and grandchildren they were the first.?

The brand loyalty attached to BMW, the worldís biggest maker of luxury cars, doesnít hurt, Alexander Edwards, head of auto research for San Diego-based consultant Strategic Vision Inc, said.

ìIf Isuzu puts out the exact same vehicle, people would say ?Why in the world would you want a car that canít go anywhere and canít do anythingí?? Edwards said. ìMini owners love the brand. Theyíre getting all the equity that the brand has in these emotional assets.?

BMW said it wants to learn how drivers will react to a limited-range vehicle, and how well its lithium-ion battery holds up under daily use. Those chosen for the Mini E trial must document their experience in online surveys and keep a driverís log.

Applicants must have a garage where BMW will install a wall box for a 220-volt outlet that can charge the battery in about three hours, according to the Mini Website. Charging from a regular wall outlet will take about 26 hours.

If the Mini E breaks down, BMW wonít provide a replacement, and the company wonít pay for a tow home if the battery runs down on the road. The auto maker, which began selling Mini Coopers in 2002 in the United States, wonít say if itís ready to mass-produce an electric car. ìThink of this almost as an adoption process. We want to get to know a lot about the individuals and their driving patterns,? Miniís McDowell said.


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