It had everything: a fully electric drivetrain, handsome styling, and an incredibly dorky name for the people who bought them: electronauts. There are a few reasons why the BMW ActiveE never looms large in our memory, though, and the first is that you couldn’t technically buy one.
There’s nobody out there with an ActiveE ownership experience. All anyone ever did was lease an ActiveE, a battery-electric version of the strange but wonderful 1 Series coupe (two-door sedan?) of the 2010s. Leases were available in major American cities, at “beginning in Fall 2011 for $499 per month for 24 months with a down payment $2,250,” per BMW. Alright, maybe not “major” American cities. You could lease one in Sacramento.
It was a pilot program of 700 cars running into 2014, as BMW Blog explained, with the i3 waiting in the wings:
The BMW Electronauts are comprised of 700 households who have leased BMW’s first fully-electric car, the ActiveE, for a two year period in the metropolitan markets of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, New York, Boston and Hartford. The BMW ActiveE lease period was and is used to gather feedback for the upcoming BMW i3 and BMW i8 models.
The ActiveE was never really anything more than a stepping stone, a part of BMW’s longer history with electric cars that started with the 2009 Mini E lease program and was maybe supposed to take off with the carbon fiber i cars. (The big change from Mini E to ActiveE was that the Mini had so little room it had its back seats yanked out to fit the batteries. The ActiveE retained full seating.)
Now that we’ve seen the i3 and i8 sort of fizzle out, lingering around for years with successors only just being announced, it’s hard not to look at the ActiveE in its own right. It’s a cool car.
The specs are not too bad, either, with 100 miles of range and almost 170 horsepower, though it did have 4,000 pounds to push around, as Autoblog noted when it test drove one. Charging to full on a 240V outlet took four hours, as the New York Times noted in its test. Also the ActiveE was limited to 90 miles per hour. It was basically a 1 Series with electric guts jammed in there, per BMW’s press release:
At the heart of the BMW ActiveE is a powerful electric synchronous motor which propels the car from zero to 60mph in just nine seconds, delivering 168hp and maximum torque of 250Nm, from a standing start. While its top speed is electronically limited to 90mph. The BMW ActiveE maintains the dynamic driving style that is typical of a BMW, with a low centre of gravity and 50:50 weight distribution to enhance traction and power transfer of the high torque.
Replacing the engine block, transmission and fuel tank are three large energy storage units containing lithium-ion cells, developed in conjunction with SB LiMotive. These modules are protected by a steel-plate battery housing with integrated liquid cooling system, to keep the batteries at optimum operating temperature helping to increase the range. These housings also help to ensure that the BMW ActiveE meets the same stringent safety standards as the BMW 1 Series Coupé, meeting and exceeding the levels legislated.
The other problem, I guess, was that the cars were maybe not spectacularly put together. Fully half of them had to get recalled because part of the electric drive system wasn’t properly sealed during production, as GreenCar Reports noted:
The drivetrain housing assembly in those vehicles may not have been adequately sealed at the factory, meaning that gear shaft was not sufficiently lubricated.
Over time, the connection between the electric drive motor and the gear assembly could become worn—and fail suddenly
In the case of this sudden failure—experienced by more than a dozen BMW ActiveE drivers—the loss of lubrication over time would cause the gear to grind on the electric motor output shaft until one or more splines failed.
All that being said, the car was supposed to be pretty good in and of itself. The first electronaut, Tom Moloughney, reviewed the experience of a year of stewardship, covering 35,000 in the process. He came away liking the car. Maybe he was just angling for a good i3 deal. Maybe he just liked how a simple, small, rear-drive EV sports sedan fit in with his life. Certainly it sounds like it drove well, as he puts it in BMW Blog:
The ActiveE has been a pleasure to drive. Even though it wasn’t designed from scratch as an electric vehicle, BMW did a great job with the conversion. With the exception of the quiet electric powertrain and strong regenerative brakes the car is BMW through and through. Even with a 992lb battery system, BMW engineers were able to get a perfect 50/50 weight distribution and you can tell the car is well balanced going through turns. Not until you really push it to the limit can you feel the extra weight the car is carrying which is nearly 800lbs more than a 135i.
The real bummer is that I can’t go out to New Jersey and check up on Moloughney’s ActiveE, see how it’s holding up. When BMW took its ActiveEs back, it crushed them. A testament to how much the electronauts loved “their” cars is that everyone lost their shit when they saw these things smashed like pancakes, rolling down the freeway on the way to the scrapyard, as we reported in 2014:
BMW didn’t learn a lesson from GM: When destroying a fleet of electric cars, avoid parading their crushed carcasses on the back of a trailer for the world to see. It’s just in bad taste, and former owners are reacting like it’s a funeral procession with open caskets.
Some survived, with 80 examples landing in the DriveNow car-sharing fleet in San Francisco. Others were on this flatbed heading down Route 91 east of L.A., and no one – particularly the early adopters that signed up for the privilege – should be surprised.
One owner mourned, “after 193 washes and endless care and attention, I’m too sad to say anymore.” As we pointed out at the time, yes, she counted how many times she washed the car. These things were beloved.
Thinking back to 2011, it’s not hard to see why. We were coming off a period of electric cars being little more than glorified golf carts. All else you had was Tesla at the high end, and frumpy hatchbacks like the Leaf or Mitsubishi MiEV at the other. The ActiveE wasn’t maybe the biggest or most grown up car, but the 1 Series was a desirable, attainable vehicle in its own right, and the ActiveE kept that kind of dignity about it.
I suppose you could say that this car is nowhere near as intriguing or interesting as the i cars that followed. The i3, no matter how familiar it becomes, will always be a glued-together carbon fiber hatchback with an optional rear-mounted engine. The ActiveE, by contrast, is very much a half-measure. The starter button still read “Engine” on it, as Car and Driver noted in its test drive. Given its recall, it’s hard not to see it as something kind of half-assed, cobbled together. Maybe that’s what makes it so surprising to me. That this weird little conversion made it out to Americans at all. Seems like they liked it.