BMW's New Mini: It's Electric!

An electric version of the popular gas-powered Mini Cooper was unveiled at the Los Angeles auto show. 500 "lockable garage" owners get the chance to test drive the green machine

Promising that you can now "hug trees as you hug corners," German carmaker BMW (BMWG.F) launched the Mini E, an electric version of its popular gas-powered Mini Cooper, on Nov. 19 at the Los Angeles auto show. The debut takes the form of a pilot program to lease just 500 cars to drivers in Los Angeles and metropolitan New York City. More than 10,000 drivers have applied to plunk down $850 a month—$29 less than the lease price of BMW's $76,000-plus 7 Series sedan. (The company isn't revealing its criteria for Mini E drivers, other than to say they must have a "lockable garage." BMW will supply a plug-in wall unit.)

BMW's green cred has been scant in recent years, as it maintained a focus on producing powerhouse sedans. But the Mini-E could be a game-changer. It brings speed and style to an otherwise earnest eco-car niche, says John O'Dell, a green-vehicle expert at car-enthusiast site "If it were an electric Kia," he says, "there wouldn't be as much buzz."

BMW is now a serious contender in the race to produce zero-emission cars with enough juice to go long distances (see popup chart). And it's making sure the message comes across: The Mini E's yellow graphics scream "I'm a plug- in!"

BMW says the leasing program will last a year, after which it will reclaim the cars for further study. It aims to mass-produce an electric car as early as 2010. For now, says Spencer Quong, senior vehicles engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, BMW is set to be the first major manufacturer to roll out an advanced "real-world electric car."

Take a look at the first video of the all-new Electric Mini.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.