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Green Car Guide drive of BMW ActiveE in the RAC Future Car Challenge


Paul Clarke
Founder and Editor of
, drove the
BMW ActiveE
in the
RAC Future Car Challenge event which took place from Brighton to London on 5 November 2011. Could we achieve a result that showed that this was one of the most efficient electric cars?

The BMW ActiveE is an electric 1 Series Coupe, and it is BMW’s showcase of its latest electric drivetrain technology. It represents a step ahead of the electric MINI E, and is a test bed for the technology that will appear in the forthcoming BMW i3 and i8.


The BMW ActiveE was one of the most important cars to drive in the RAC Future Car Challenge because it is a rear-wheel drive electric BMW and a symbol of what is to come in the future in terms of BMW’s exciting electric car offering.

The aim of the RAC Future Car Challenge was to drive 57 miles from Brighton to London using the least energy possible within the 2 hours 45 minutes minimum and 3 hours 30 minutes maximum time permitted. Imperial College London monitored the energy usage using data-loggers which measured fuel consumption and CO 2 emissions, or current and voltage in the case of electric vehicles.


In total more than 65 vehicles took part in the event, representing different manufacturers with a variety of low emission powertrain technologies ranging from diesel to hybrid to electric – see our separate report about the event as a whole, coming very soon.

The day started off the wrong side of 6am, and it wasn’t long after this that all cars had to be lined up on Madeira Drive in Brighton ready to start the competition. Whilst waiting to be called forward, I was very aware that I was sitting in a very sumptuously-appointed BMW, and compared to some other vehicles in the competition, we were sitting in the lap of luxury. Of course, being an electric car, the powertrain was quiet at all times and the car had zero tailpipe emissions.


I was to share the driving/co-driving with Will Dron from the recently-launched website ‘The Charging Point’. Will took the first driving shift, which was from Brighton to Central Sussex College in Crawley, a distance of 24 miles.

The BMW ActiveE has an official range of 100 miles. The event route was 57 miles – if you didn’t get lost on the way. We were hoping that we would therefore have a range of 43 miles left upon arrival in London.


After being waved off at the start line, the first half of the route headed northwards on A and B roads, mainly through the countryside. At this time in the morning the roads were relatively quiet and it was simply a case of practicing eco-driving techniques in an attempt to conserve battery range. We had also selected BMW’s ECO PRO mode, which configures the car to be as energy-efficient as possible. However, despite Will’s light right foot, it wasn’t long before the range display on the ActiveE adjusted itself to say we had just 80 miles of driving left. Would we even reach the finish? Or would we run out of electricity on one of London’s approach roads and contribute to snarling up the capital on a Saturday morning?

At our halt, thankfully the range was still hovering around 80 miles. After a cup of tea and a chat with Kevin McCloud we were soon on our way again, this time with myself at the wheel, for the second leg of 33 miles. I had obviously drawn the short straw, because it wasn’t long before the quiet country roads changed into a constant stream of vehicles moving in a very start-stop fashion between countless sets of traffic lights and roundabouts on the approach to central London. However this was a very good testing ground for an electric car – with no clutch, no gears, and no noise, and in the lap of BMW luxury, there was no better car in which to be stuck in traffic.


The trick in such traffic conditions was to plan ahead and always try and avoid stopping and starting, by controlling the accelerator in such a way that the car was always in motion. Of course if you do brake, the car uses this energy to replenish the battery – so you can’t lose. By this stage our eyes were becoming constantly fixed on the remaining range, and the miles per kWh read-out – as well as the time on the clock, as you had to arrive in Pall Mall within a maximum of 3 hours 30 minutes. Although having over 3 hours to complete 57 miles sounds easy on paper, with crawling London traffic, this time limit was starting to look very scary.

However we arrived in Pall Mall in time, but more importantly, with 70 miles still left on the range read-out. Based on our driving, the read-out gave us a total theoretical range, if we were to fully recharge, of 138 miles – in other words 38 miles more than the car’s official range. We also had the ‘fuel gauge’ showing that we had over ‘half a tank of electricity’ still left. So we could easily have turned round and driven back to Brighton again without recharging. However this wasn’t the plan, and instead, the car formed part of the Regent Street Motor Show, where people flocked around to investigate the first electric BMW to be seen by the public in the UK.


From a technical point of view, the key item of data at the end of the event was the energy consumption figure of 5 miles per kWh. BMW believed this to be an excellent result. At the time of writing we’re still waiting for the official full results, but it looks like the ActiveE performed amazingly well.

The BMW ActiveE was an absolute pleasure to drive. It had all the benefits of a rear-wheel drive BMW, but with zero-emissions, and zero requirement for petrol or diesel. The only downside is that you can’t rush out and buy an ActiveE today. There will be a fleet of 160 ActiveEs on duty for the 2012 Olympics, together with a limited trial programme. So we’ll just have to wait for the BMW i3, which, based on our drive of the ActiveE, should be a highly impressive car indeed.

Read our full review and results of the RAC Future Car Challenge .







Paul Clarke