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The MINI is surely the perfect base for an electric car – so does the MINI E drive as you would imagine?

The key thing is that the MINI E is a MINI. That means it has the great MINI styling, both inside and out. It also means that it has the MINI wheel-at-each-corner stance, which gives it the classic ‘go-kart-handling’ – which is retained.

However the petrol or diesel engine is now replaced with a lithium-ion battery and electric motor. Does that change the driving experience? Well, yes. It’s now more like an automatic MINI. But with the flat torque curve of an electric car. And of course zero emissions.

It’s perfectly acceptable to drive. With one forward gear, it couldn’t be simpler. Just accelerate, and you’re off. It reaches 62mph in 8.5 seconds, it can go on to (a limited) 95mph top speed and has a range of up to 155 miles (in optimum conditions). The electric motor generates 201hp.

The surprise may come when you lift off. Whereas a normal MINI would coast, the MINI E has strong regenerative braking, which helps to recharge the battery – which in practical terms means that it brakes itself without you needing to apply the brakes. This regenerative braking is likely to be a feature of most electric cars.

Because the electric MINI has all the torque that comes with an electric motor – 220Nm in this case – this does translate into more torque steer under hard acceleration.

The MINI E also feels heavier than a standard MINI, although with the batteries sitting between the front seats and the rear wheels, this weight distribution effectively makes the E a mid-engined proposition.

Of course this also means that the MINI E is purely a two-seater. There is a very small luggage space behind the batteries, but this is more use for laptops than suitcases.

The rest of the interior remains completely MINI-like, which is a good thing. The chunky MINI steering wheel is retained, and the driver gains a large dial above the steering wheel which indicates the amount of remaining battery charge.

So the MINI E looks great, drives well, and has zero ‘tailpipe’ emissions. It’s also likely to cost just £2 off-peak for a full charge. Realistically, this will give a range of between 100 and 120 miles. In comparison the cost of petrol or diesel would be £10-£12.

So there must be a catch? Yes, there’s a big catch. After whetting our appetite, the big problem is that we can’t buy an electric MINI. Not now, not even in the foreseeable future.

The MINI E is purely a prototype. A very small handful of people will be chosen to take part in the trial, the aim of which is for BMW to learn about how people live with electric cars. However to be eligible for the trial you have to be located in a very specific geographical area – basically a triangle radiating westward from the centre of London out to Oxford in the north and Farnborough in the south. This equates to the area covered by Southern Electric.

In case you want to rush to be part of the trial, applications have now closed. There was one month to apply and in total there were 515 applications for 20 spaces. (There are also 20 cars being trialled by fleet users). After six months, a second batch of drivers will get the opportunity to trial the car. After that BMW will take the cars back and assess how they have worked. They may possibly be re-used.

The next stage in the selection criteria is for a house survey to ensure that people can charge the MINI E at home. The charging process that can take as little as 4.5 hours from a 32 amp supply – ie. a domestic MINI wall box. If the car is charged from empty from a standard 13 amp domestic supply, this can take 10 hours. The MINI E comes with cables for both recharging options.

Southern Electric will install the domestic wall boxes for overnight charging on Economy 7 rates. The company will also be looking at a building up a public infrastructure, for instance with charging points at Park and Rides and even at an out of town M&S store.

The chosen drivers will have to pay a £330/month lease. This is subsidised by the government’s Technology Strategy Board. The volunteers also have to drive 300 miles per month, use the car for personal travel only, and – crucially – provide feedback. The MINI Es will be delivered before the end of this year.

Although BMW says that there will be no mass-produced electric MINI, there will be a BMW electric city car, and it’s due to be here by 2015. In the meantime BMW is focusing on EfficientDynamics, which is here now in the shape of 1.6 million cars on the road today with such technologies.

BMW doesn’t believe that hybrids or plug-in hybrids will be for the masses. But it does see that electric may be workable, especially in cities – and a range extender could make EVs even more useful. Interestingly, the company sees hydrogen as 20 years away, and it believes petrol and diesel will still be here for the next 25 years.

So the electric MINI has all the benefits of the regular MINI, apart from having two fewer seats and a shorter range, but it gains the holy grail status of zero emissions. If BMW offered the MINI E for sale, our guess is that it would be a success. Unfortunately, after being tantalised with the electric MINI, we will need to wait until BMW is more reassured about the quality of the product before it will sell us one.