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Mini E lease program has electric vehicle fans all charged up

AUTOS

450 in a pilot program will use the vehicles as their daily commuters for a year. Experts say it could be a precursor to an explosion of relatively affordable electric cars in the near future.

May 11, 2009|Ken Bensinger

There are a number of roadblocks between the gasoline- fueled present and the electrified future. The big ones, such as developing batteries that can survive years of charging and not cost a fortune, are fairly well known.

For start-ups, raising enough money to keep going can be hard, as Phoenix Motorcars of Ontario discovered. The company's plans to begin producing an electric pickup in late 2007 were pushed back several times, suppliers sued and, late last month, Phoenix filed for bankruptcy protection.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Electric cars: An article in Business on Monday about a lease program for an electric Mini coupe said the Tesla Roadster was the first all-electric, highway-legal vehicle to be sold in the U.S. since World War II. In fact, Toyota sold 328 electric RAV4 EV sport utility vehicles in 2002 and 2003.

Smaller hurdles also abound.

In the case of the Mini E, BMW discovered that although its range was lab-tested at 156 miles per charge, real-world driving put it closer to 100. Installing a 240-volt charger in every driver's garage also proved tricky, since many of the houses didn't have sufficient capacity to support the load.

Then there was the plug, almost an afterthought. It turned out that certifying the cable connecting car to charger -- a minor but necessary bit of red tape -- took so long that it delayed the Mini E rollout by more than two months.

"We knew we would have some obstacles to overcome," said Richard Steinberg, Mini's head of product strategy in the U.S. "They turned out to be a little bigger than we thought."

Such concerns didn't seem to register among the more than 200 people who showed up at the Science Center to gawk at the electric cars that they would soon be driving.

Chad Robertson and Kathy Bakken of Los Angeles brought their 12-year-old son, Weston, to inspect the goods. Bakken, an entertainment advertising designer, leased a GM EV1 in the late 1990s and, heartbroken when the company took it away from her, has pined for an electric car ever since.

"The minute I saw this car, I was like, 'I want it now!' " Bakken said, watching Weston sit behind the wheel, a grin spreading across his youthful face.

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ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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