If you’re doing some last-minute Christmas shopping and looking for an unusual gift, might I suggest a battery-powered MINI?

OK, given the preponderance of toy versions of the toy-like subcompact, that probably doesn’t sound like a very original idea, but I’m talking about one that you can actually drive, and not with a remote control. Not yet, at least.

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The MINI-E is the first all-electric version of the cheeky little runabout that’s been filling in those hard-to-fit parking spots in American cities for the past few years. Introduced to the public at the 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show, it is the only plug-in electric car currently available from a major automobile manufacturer that is legal to drive on any road, including highways (the boutique Tesla Roadster notwithstanding). Five hundred of the vehicles are being offered to select drivers in the Los Angeles and New York City metropolitan areas as part of a field trial of the technology to see how they stand up to real-world driving.

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Unlike those odd-looking neighborhood electric vehicles that struggle to do 25 miles per hour, the MINI-E has a governed top speed of 95 mph courtesy of the 204-horsepower electric motor supplied by California-based electric car conversion company, AC Propulsion. With a 35 kilowatt hour battery pack taking up the space where the rear seat usually is, the MINI-E also accelerates as quickly as a gasoline-powered MINI Cooper despite weighing nearly 600 pounds more.

Other than the new powertrain, and a slightly beefier suspension to handle the added weight, the car is pretty much a standard issue MINI Cooper. From the driver’s seat, there isn’t much to tip you off that there is anything special about it, aside from a battery level indicator where the tachometer usually is, and a couple of MINI-E logos scattered across the dashboard.

That is until you turn on the juice, with your right foot.

Slam on what will forever be known as the "gas pedal" and, for a second, nothing happens. Then everything happens, as the motor delivers maximum torque from the get-go, and pulls the car down the road with a continuous thrust delivered through a single speed transmission – electric motors typically don’t require multiple gears.

Around town the MINI-E is quiet like a hybrid before the gasoline engine kicks in, with just a soft whine from the electric motor as you make your way from stoplight to stop sign. At highway speeds, when normal levels of road and wind noise start piping in, it is easy to forget that there are no flammable liquids on board, unless you happen to be a door-to-door acetone salesman.

On a quick spin around Manhattan, the MINI-E felt a lot like any other MINI, albeit one with a couple of sumo wrestlers on board. The engineers have managed to spread out the added pounds evenly, bringing the car even closer to a perfect 50/50 front/rear weight balance than the regular version. The front end remains the dominant force, though, and all of that power going through the front wheels makes itself known through occasional tugs at the steering wheel. But the MINI-E retains much of the go-kart-like responses the company’s cars are famous for.

Overall, the MINI-E comes with a very short learning curve, as long as you don’t go a lot of long trips. On a full charge the battery pack is only good for a maximum of 150 miles, so you’re limited to one way journeys of 75 miles unless you have a place to plug in on the other end. If you like to drive in the spirited fashion that many MINI owners do, it would be prudent to stay a little closer to home.

MINI estimates that it will cost $1.80 in electricity to travel 62 miles, though utility rates vary state to state. That compares to approximately $2.40 worth of gasoline that the highest mileage car sold in America, the Toyota Prius, needs to cover the same distance at today’s pump prices. Pretty nice savings, but the MINI-E will ultimately cost you much more than that.

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Since this is effectively a beta test, the cars are only available for lease, and for just one year at a time. The price of participating in the program is $850 a month, which includes collision insurance, maintenance and the installation of a fast charging station at your home that can fully recharge the batteries in less than three hours – compared to eight or more through a standard outlet. It may seem a bit odd that you have to pay anything to essentially be a guinea pig and moving billboard – the exterior is festooned with prominent MINI-E graphics – but I guess this way they know you’re serious about it.

Of course to get one you need a home with a garage, a job with a commute, a willingness to blog about your experience, and a half an hour's worth or writing out the other things that the online application asks of you. As of the second week of December, 1,800 people had signed up, so you still have a pretty good chance of getting your hands on one, but not for much longer. The deadline to apply is December 24th at midnight.

Still beats trying to find parking at the mall on Christmas Eve.

What do you think of the MINI-E?

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