If you could have done something in 1996, why do it (again) in 2009?

As Johnny Carson said about comedy, timing is everything. And Americans today seem ready for electric vehicles (EVs) of any and all types, even if the “new” foreign-made EV they’re driving had been done, and many say done better, by a Detroit company more than a decade before.

As a longtime resident, I love this city for its appreciation of (and demand for) the latest in technology, whether for keeping the ocean clean or getting us down the road; when we’re not saving humanity, at the Farmers’ Market or chanting for world peace, we’re the classic early tech adopters.

Outside of Santa Monica, the only places I’ve ever seen more Prius gas/electric hybrids was in a place outside Nagoya, Japan, called Toyota City (the company’s headquarters) and the staff parking lot at NBC in Burbank; go figure, right?

And now, with what I see as poor — or maybe very cynical — timing, perhaps trying to take advantage of a new-generation of EV enthusiasts, BMW, through their Mini division, is starting performance field trials on their electric car called Mini E.

These tests are going to be conducted by the public, who will have the privilege of paying for participating. “Make the customers pay us to do our job!” Genius!

And the funny thing is, Mini says this car will never be mass-produced; it’s a development mule (as we call them in the trade) for an EV they plan on selling here in 2012 (Mitsubishi and Nissan/Renault have also announced plans to sell “pure” EVs worldwide that same year).

The car was introduced at last year’s Los Angeles Auto Show so maybe you saw it there. And some of the things you saw were Mini E’s rear seat made useless because it had been totally taken-over by batteries, a car which weighs about 1,000-pounds more than a “normal” Mini, a car which has a range of only about 100 miles on a full charge and a car which can be leased-only and costs around twice as much per month as a standard Mini.

The near-500 Mini E’s in the program will be available in the New York City metro area and, naturally, Southern California.

BMW of Santa Monica does not sell Mini. South Bay Mini, Mini of Universal City and Long Beach Mini are the closest dealers to Santa Monica handling Mini E.

Want to participate in the lease trials?

You’ll need a garage, as much as $1,000 to rewire that garage if need be, to sign a closed-end one-year lease of $850 a month, liability insurance, a clean driving record and have had your driver’s license for more than five years, to provide “reasonable feedback” about Mini E’s driving experience and many other requirements.

If you want to sign-up, contact Mini through any of those dealers listed above. Or go to www.miniusa.com/minie-usa. And be quick about it, too.

But it’s all been done before.

Between 1996 and 1999, General Motors leased consumers an electric car called EV1 in Southern California and Arizona (some were also leased in Georgia through a utility company there). More than 1,000 EV1’s made it onto the public highways before the corporation infamously pulled the plug on the project (see: “Who Killed the Electric Car?”).

Some (well, too many) of the details between EV1 and Mini E are similar, including that 100 mile range (and EV1 managed that on decidedly old-school lead-acid batteries) and the high lease cost (EV1 leased from $299 to $546 a month, a lot in 1996).

While Mini E is a reworked version of an existing car, EV1 was completely new from the top down, and many of the features developed for EV1 are found today on gas/electric hybrids, high-mileage gasoline cars and EV’s around the world. And if the Mini E motor and controllers and computer programs are so new, why still the 100-mile-per-charge range?

Why take another step backward when we should be taking two steps forward? Mini E just sounds not ready for prime time. Better BMW had built the third-generation EV1 which never was.

Steve Parker is the automotive blogger for the Huffington Post (www.HuffingtonPost.com/steve-parker), a consultant and contributor for the NBC-TV automotive show Whipnotic and its companion Web site (www.Whipnotic.com), and can be heard live and worldwide every Saturday and Sunday starting at 5 p.m. Pacific time on www.TalkRadioOne.com. His home site is www.SteveParker.com and his column, Tornante, runs exclusively every week in the SMDP.

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