First drive: Electric Mini E

* First drive on streets of LA * Feels much like a standard Mini * 500 Americans testing it...

First drive: Electric Mini E

Pretty much every car manufacturer is making bold claims about electric vehicles, with most expecting to make them available in one form or another over the next few years.

That 'one form or another', however, is likely to be a small, oddly styled, supermini that's only be available to selected businesses through a lease scheme, and wont be on general sale until the middle of the next decade.

On the surface, that last comment certainly applies to the new electric Minis (or Mini Es as theyre known) because they can only be leased in the US and initially only 500 are being trialled. In reality Mini is some years ahead of rivals because this is a proper, British-built Mini, not a slightly oddball special.

Behind the wheel on the streets of Los Angeles

To find out what it's like we got behind the wheel of the Mini E on the streets of downtown Los Angeles and came away hugely impressed as the LA locals might say: its awesome!

Lithium Ion batteries, similar to those in your mobile phone or laptop, provide the power through an electric motor which drives the front wheels, and the only emissions come from the production of electricity to charge the batteries in the first place.

A clear downside is that the batteries take up the space normally reserved for rear passengers, so this is strictly a two-seater Mini.

Feels like a real car

It still feels very much like a standard Mini, though. Floor the throttle and youll be pushed back into your seat as the car accelerates seamlessly (thanks to the auto gearbox) from zero - 62mph to in a little over eight seconds. Thats hot hatch fast and feels it the unusual, but not unpleasant, whirr of the motors helps. Top speed is a motorway busting 95mph.

While the acceleration is startling, the deceleration takes more getting used to. Lift off the throttle and the car immediately slows with some force, without you touching the brake pedal.

When youre not on the power the electric motor acts as a generator, with power from this braking force used to top up the battery. Mini says that in city driving, the motors braking power is sufficient for 75% of all deceleration we can believe it. Thankfully, the brake lights glow as you lift to warn drivers behind.

Otherwise, its pretty much standard Mini fare. The handling feels surefooted, although you can clearly feel the extra weight of the batteries behind you, while the steering is as sharp as ever. You do notice some tugging of the steering if you accelerate sharply in anything but a straight line, though. The extra weight of the batteries also stiffens up an already firm ride.

A car to get excited about

If youre one of the lucky 500 to lease an electric Mini (at a rumoured cost of around $800 per month), youll have a special charging point installed in your garage, which will provide a full battery charge in just two and a half hours. Plug it in elsewhere and itll take longer. A full charge should give a range of around 150 miles.

At last then, here is a real electric car we can get properly excited about. Admittedly we dont know more about costs or availability yet, but if all electric cars are as good to drive as the Mini E, then theres much to look forward to in the future. We just wish that future was now.

Mini Electric (E)
On sale n/a
Price n/a
You'll like: Zero emissions; swift performance
You won't: You cant get one in the UK yet; no rear seats

You can watch our first drive of the Mini E by clicking