The electric MINI takes to the road in the US in March as a forerunner to mass production of electric vehicles by BMW by the turn of the next decade.

Friedrich Eichiner, BMW board member for corporate development, told reporters just before the opening of the Los Angeles Motor Show that the company could make a decision by the end of this year or early in 2009 as to whether its volume EV will be based on the Mini, an existing BMW or an all new brand.

The company plans to start selling electric cars between 2010 and 2015. As a first step it is leasing electric Minis to 500 customers in New York, New Jersey and California for one year starting in March to evaluate performance.

The Mini E, shown as a concept at the Los Angeles Show, is part of BMW’s Project i, an initiative to develop a low-emissions city car that could become a fourth brand. They are built at the Mini plant in the UK without engines, transmissions or fuel tanks, then shipped to Munich, where they are equipped with the electric motor, battery units, performance electronics and transmission drive components.

The Minis will be leased for $850-a-month (GBP565) which includes a charge station installed in the drivers’ garage. Charging the empty lithium-ion battery takes about two hours and up to 10 hours if plugged into a wall socket, giving the car a range of 156 miles fully charged. Test drivers will have to take their cars for service checks at one of eight selected dealerships every 3,000kms.

Eichiner said that volume EVs will initially be targeted at the US but will also be marketed in Europe.

See also: US: Mini details 500-car EV trial