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Mini Cooper SE: The Pocket Rocket That Runs On Batteries

On sale later this month, the all-electric Mini Cooper SE offers all the things people love about the iconic small car — minus the emissions.

Mini Cooper SE: The Pocket Rocket That Runs On Batteries
Mini Cooper

The new Mini Cooper SE electric car doesn’t break any new ground or offer a dramatically fresh appearance. But that’s the point, according to BMW, which has owned the iconic British brand since 1994.

The design brief, the company insists, was to make something as close as possible to the standard Mini Cooper S three-door hatch, so that fans of the model — and there are many — could choose between a conventional and electric drivetrain, much as they would choose between any other options.

The other intent was to make sure that it not only looked like a Mini but also drove like one. On that score, it is a huge success. It’s a pocket rocket with the usual Mini low centre of gravity. Indeed, in this form, the centre of gravity is lower than ever because there are 200kg of batteries under the floor.

Mini Cooper

The bodywork is a standard three-door Mini, embellished with a new grille and a few bright badges and stripes. The ride height has been raised by just 15mm, but it gives the car a slightly different stance. The fluoro highlights continue inside and a new oval-shaped digital instrument panel conveys all the information needed for an electric car — most importantly, the range until “empty”.

Here’s where the Mini may disappoint. Its everyday driving range is a mere 233km. While this may get you far in Singapore, it is well behind many of its competitors. In other ways too, the powertrain is not going to set the electric world on fire. It is largely borrowed from the BMW i3, a radical-looking city car that is now seven years old.

The output of 135kW and 270Nm goes to the front wheels and, as with most electric cars, the response from the accelerator pedal is near instant. That’s why, although the official 0-100km/h figure is a reasonably modest 7.3 seconds, the car is far more spritely than such a statistic might suggest. Straight off the line, it’s quicker than even the hottest petrol Minis.

The abundant torque means no gears are required, and the car will accelerate smoothly and near silently to 150km/h. Smart electronics ensure that two banes of many powerful front-drive cars — wheelspin and torque steer — are admirably suppressed.

Mini Cooper

The functionality is quite similar to a normal Mini and the interior packaging is the same, which is to say the rear seat is pretty tight and the boot is small. There is no “frunk” (or front boot) as the under-bonnet area is filled with the electric motor and cooling systems. The rear cargo space is at least partly filled with the recharging cable.

The electric Mini is heavy. It weighs 1,440kg, despite being only 3,845mm long. That said, it rides surprisingly well, and although designed for the city, is entirely comfortable on the highway. The ability to change direction rapidly is a wonderful Mini trait and with so much lowdown weight, this one does so with aplomb.

Another interesting thing about the driving experience is the regenerative braking, which captures energy that would otherwise be lost in the act of slowing down and pumps it back into the batteries. This effect is adjustable and at the maximum setting, it is possible to drive almost everywhere using only the accelerator pedal.

Lifting off produces about the same force as mild braking, so with a bit of practice, even fast downhill corners can be taken without having to touch the left pedal. It’s fun and it’s beneficial — down one particularly steep section, my indicated range increased from 83km to 97km.

Mini Cooper

As with all electric cars, the real world driving range depends on topography, driving style, temperature and other factors. In a mix of city and highway driving, I covered 140km and the instrument panel told me the remaining range was 50km. Although range is a huge consideration for most electric car buyers, few will travel farther than that on a typical day; as well, the Mini’s relatively small battery pack can be fully recharged in about 35 minutes on a fast charger.

In 1959, Mini reinvented the small car, and in 2001, BMW reinvented the Mini. This electric incarnation is certainly the biggest change since then. It may not be radical, but it captures all the things people love about the Mini — and without local emissions.

  • Mini Cooper SE Electric
    • Engine Electro-synchronous motor with 28.9 kWh battery pack
    • Transmission One-speed
    • Power/torque 135 kW/270 Nm
    • 0-100 km/h 7.3 seconds
    • Range 233km

The new electric Mini has provided this writer with yet another reminder that if batteries can be made lighter, cheaper and a little quicker to charge, the game’s largely up for the petrol engine. 

Sure, there will be some upmarket niche vehicles for traditionalists who want a tourbillon-like V8 or V12, and the occasional lightweight petrol sports car might stick its head between the cracks. The bottom end of the market too may have some cut-price petrol cars from companies trying to eke out a little more from their investment in pistons, crankshafts and electronic fuel-injection systems. 

Mini Cooper

But once there is price and range parity, the argument for petrol will be very tough to make. The only doubt I have about this — and admittedly it’s a big one — relates to the timeframe. 

BMW, maker of the Mini, is equally unsure about how quickly batteries can be improved and has hedged its bets with the latest Mini. Its platform is designed so the car can be built in petrol, diesel, plug-in petrol-electric hybrid and, now, fully electric formats. 

Similarly, Mercedes-Benz has electrified one of its smaller SUVs, the GLC, to create the EQC. Other companies are taking a similar approach, offering what is basically the same car with a choice of drivetrains. What it fails to offer is one of the biggest advantages of an electric vehicle designed from the ground up — a lot more usable space. The “ground up” approach in the Tesla Model 3, for example, delivers a massive rear cargo area, a reasonable storage bin in the nose and more passenger space than most cars its size. 

  • Audi e-tron SAudi
  • Audi Q4 Sportback e-tron conceptAudi
  • Volkswagen ID.3Volkswagen

In the same way, the Porsche Taycan, another electric-only design, is almost as roomy as the larger Porsche Panamera sedan. Porsche’s Volkswagen Group stablemate Audi will be producing its own version of the model, known as the e-tron GT, shortly. Audi will also soon have the e-tron S, a high performance version of the e-tron SUV. This is said to be the first mass produced electric car with three motors (two on the rear axle and one in front). 

Two versions will be offered: a conventional SUV and a fastback version, which Audi calls a coupe. It says the e-tron S can be charged from empty to 80 percent in about half an hour, and will boast a range of 360km to 365km based on the WLTP test, which is supposed to deliver “real world” results. 

Once again though, it is built on a platform also used for conventional cars (the VW Group’s MLB platform). Perhaps more significantly, Audi and Porsche are jointly developing an all-new electric-only platform that will be used for such cars as the Audi Q4 Sportback, previewed recently in a spectacular “concept”. The new MEB platform developed for such cars as the Golf-sized all-electric VW ID.3 will be used for smaller cars in the VW Group.

This story first appeared in the September 2020 issue of A Magazine.

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