Skip to main content

First drive: 2013 BMW Active E

The electric motor’s torque made it easy to exploit gaps in traffic, and the stock 1 Series nimbleness remained mostly intact despite the fact that the ActiveE weighs 716 pounds more than a 2013 128i coupe.

BMW is taking a big risk with the i3, a clean-sheet all-electric city car that seeks to redefine EVs and the entire premium compact vehicle segment in one fell swoop. The i3 isn’t quite a great of a leap as it seems, though: BMW has already built an electric car, called the “ActiveE.”

The BMW ActiveE is obviously a work in progress, but it bodes well for the full-stop i3 production car.

However, the ActiveE isn’t like most cars; it’s a combination prototype and drivable research vehicle for BMW. Which is why, even though it’s been available for lease since late 2011, you probably haven’t seen one on the road. And even if you did, you may not have known what you were looking at.

Based on the 1 Series coupe, the ActiveE was part of a pilot program that allowed BMW to gather valuable real world data on electric cars and how customers use them. That information was used in the development of the i3.

I recently had a chance to drive the ActiveE to see if this prequel bodes well for the production i3.

Getting Active

Other than the circuit board stickers on the side, one would never know that the ActiveE was anything order than an ordinary 1 series, the sawed-off shotgun version of the previous generation (E92) 3 Series coupe.

Open the door and it’s the same story: only a few pieces of tacky white plastic and a revised center console with range and a battery charge gauge.

BMW Active E back logo
Image used with permission by copyright holder

There’s also an eDrive display that gives a more detailed picture of what the battery is doing through the center stack information screen. Graphics show the battery’s state of charge, and whether the battery is sending energy to the motor or receiving it from the wheels through regenerative braking. Other than that, the interior is just like a stock 1 Series’.

Under the skin, it’s a completely different story. The engine bay is occupied by an electric motor with the same 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque as the i3. Lithium-ion battery cells are crammed into the remaining space under the hood, in the transmission tunnel, and in the space normally occupied by the fuel tank. All of those cells add up to 32 kWh of capacity.

A life-size slot car

Getting underway is quite a process: insert the key into a dashboard slot, press the Engine Start button, unlock shifter, toggle it back to engage Drive. And after all that, the driver is rewarded with silence. Only the gauges indicate that the ActiveE is ready for launch.

Looking at the ActiveE’s specs, it’s hard to anticipate an exciting ride either. BMW says the car will reach 62 mph (100 kph) in nine seconds, and its top speed is limited to 90 mph, 3mph less than the i3.

BMW Active E front drivers
Image used with permission by copyright holder

None of that matters, though. Once the throttle (it’s not a gas pedal, is it?) is pushed, the ActiveE surges away with plenty of enthusiasm. Like all EVs, all of the motor’s torque is available at zero rpm but the ActiveE seems especially quick in stoplight drag races.

Zipping around Manhattan’s West Side, we found the ActiveE ideally suited to urban driving. The electric motor’s torque made it easy to exploit gaps in traffic, and the stock 1 Series nimbleness remained mostly intact despite the fact that the ActiveE weighs 716 pounds more than a 2013 128i coupe, most of that due to the battery’s weight.

At highway speeds, we believe that bulk would have taken the edge off the ActiveE’s glorious torque, but on New York City streets, it was a champ. We could have spent all day doing loops around town like we were on a life-size slot car track.

Putting a stop to the fun, literally, was the ActiveE’s regenerative braking system. Regeneration is so strong that lifting off the throttle induced neck-snapping deceleration, likely akin to being on the Space Shuttle when the drag chutes deploy.

BMW says it equipped the ActiveE with a coasting mode, which lessens regeneration midway through the pedal’s travel. We didn’t notice it.


Those powerful regenerative brakes help give the ActiveE a range of 100 miles, according to BMW. That compares favorably with production EVs like the Nissan Leaf (75 miles) and Chevrolet Spark EV (82 miles), but probably won’t lessen feelings of range anxiety.

Looking at the ActiveE’s specs, it’s hard to anticipate an exciting ride…

Using city streets as your own personal racetrack will significantly lessen that range, though. BMW says a full charge from a 240 volt source takes four to five hours, with a 120 volt charge from that normal outlet in the garage presumably taking much, much longer.

BMW imported about 700 ActiveEs to the United States, leasing them to customers at $2,250 down and $499 a month for two years. The company timed the lease period to end just in time for the rollout of the i3, so if you want to own an electric BMW, you’ll have to wait for that one. The ActiveE is also being used in BMW’s DriveNow electric car sharing program.

Better (i3) things are coming

The BMW ActiveE is obviously a work in progress, but it bodes well for the full-stop i3 production car. Its low-end torque and nimble handling show just how well-suited a small EV is to urban driving, while keeping it in a city (one with plenty of charging stations, that is) makes its short range less of an issue.

For a beta version, the ActiveE is a pretty good electric car. We’ll wait to see if BMW has channeled its good qualities into the production i3.


  • Despite battery heft, has pep and power
  • BMW driving dynamics survive intact
  • Never needs gas!


  • 700+ pounds heavier than gas-powered version
  • Range, charging times and places remain issues
  • About to be rendered obsolete by the i3

Editors' Recommendations

Stephen Edelstein
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist covering all things cars. He likes anything with four wheels, from classic cars…
2023 Kia Niro EV first drive review: Practical doesn’t have to bore you to tears
Front three quarter view of the 2023 Kia Niro EV.

If you want to see just how quickly the electric car landscape has changed over the past few years, take a look at the redesigned 2023 Kia Niro EV.
When the first-generation Niro EV launched for the 2019 model year (following hybrid and plug-in hybrid Niro variants), it was a pretty big deal. The Niro was Kia’s first EV not based on a conventional gasoline model, and the first intended for high sales volumes.
The second-generation 2023 Niro EV boasts more tech, more space, and more extroverted styling than its predecessor, but it’s still very much in the shadow of the Kia EV6. Once Kia’s main EV attraction, the Niro is being refocused as a more affordable option to take on the likes of the Chevrolet Bolt EV/Bolt EUV, Volkswagen ID.4, and Nissan Leaf.
Kia plans to offer the Niro EV in trim levels named Wind and Wave, but hasn’t released pricing for either. Note that the previous-generation 2022 Niro EV started at $41,245; the new model could see a price increase because of its updates. And because it’s assembled in South Korea, the 2023 Niro EV won’t qualify for the revamped federal EV tax credit, Kia has confirmed.

Design and interior
Like the previous generation, the Niro is part of a three-pronged lineup that also includes the Niro Hybrid and Niro PHEV (plug-in hybrid models). All three maintain the tall-wagon shape of the first-generation Niro, but with much bolder styling.
Where the previous Niro was a wishy-washy mix of car and SUV styling elements, the 2023 Niro is the result of the same fearless design department that produced the EV6 and the 2023 Kia Sportage. The traditional automotive “face” was rearranged with a visor-like element, protruding grille, and hexagonal lighting elements. Contrasting trim panels break up the profile view, and conceal “Air Blade” elements around the taillights that, Kia claims, reduce aerodynamic drag.
Kia used sustainable materials to further decrease the Niro EV’s environmental impact.

Read more
2022 Volkswagen ID. Buzz first drive review: The iconic hippie hauler goes electric
Volkwagen's ID. Buzz drives down the road.

Volkswagen's growing family of ID-badged electric cars has a new mascot: the ID. Buzz. Inspired by the vintage air-cooled Bus models and previewed by a close-to-production concept unveiled in 2017, the heritage-laced van offers an electric powertrain, an eye-catching design, plus an interior that's high-tech and almost lounge-like. I tested a Buzz prototype in England in February 2022 and walked away impressed, and time driving a regular-production model in and around Copenhagen, Denmark, confirmed these impressions. This was worth the wait.
Design and interior
While you can tell that the Buzz is on the same branch of the Volkswagen family tree as the split- and bay-window Buses prized by hippies decades ago, designers decided not to go full-retro as they did with the New Beetle released in 1997. The headlights aren't round, for example, and they're much higher than the original van's. It's the same story out back: The lights are horizontal, located right below the big hatch's window, and connected by a light bar. This is intentional -- Volkswagen aimed to echo the original model without cloning it.

In terms of proportions, the Buzz is pretty spot on. The front end isn't entirely flat and the front doors are positioned behind the front wheels rather than over them, but the design is as close to the old van's as modern regulations allow. The Buzz variant that I drove in Denmark measures 185.5 inches long, 78.1 inches wide, and 76.8 inches tall, so it's about as long as a Tiguan but around 10 inches taller and five inches wider. This is what Volkswagen refers to as the short-wheelbase model, and it's not coming to the United States. We'll get a long-wheelbase model that hasn't been unveiled yet; it should look just like the European-spec model but with more space between the front and rear axles.

Read more
2022 Rivian R1S first drive review: An EV SUV fit for an expedition or a drag race
The front three-quarter view of a 2022 Rivian against a rocky backdrop.

Rivian beat the likes of Ford, General Motors, and Tesla to market with an electric pickup truck, but now it’s time for act two.

The 2022 Rivian R1S shares most of its DNA with the Rivian R1T pickup released late last year, but in place of a bed, it has a three-row cabin with seating for seven. It retains the R1T’s distinctive styling, impressive off-road capability, and improbable acceleration, but in a package for drivers who need to carry people instead of stuff.

Read more