Affordable and anonymous, this electric Mini has some sizable drawbacks.
There are three primary barriers to mass EV adoption: price, range, and infrastructure. That's a gross oversimplification, but from a consumer-facing perspective, it's accurate.
Tesla managed to corner the market on range and (especially) infrastructure, but the cheapest Model 3 retails for $40,000 before federal income-tax credits. Other, more affordable EVs have their own set of problems. The Chevrolet Bolt and Nissan Leaf are both affordable and offer abundant range, but they're as stylish as pocket protectors and as cool as socks with sandals.
Enter Mini and BMW, two brands that aren't exactly synonymous with affordability. But a reasonable price is just what makes the Mini Cooper SE so interesting. The most affordable example starts at a mere $29,900. Factor in the maximum $7,500 federal income-tax credit and that sum drops to a scant $22,400. State and local incentives can drive that price lower, making the new Cooper SE the most affordable EV on the market all while making relatively minor styling compromises (or, arguably, improvements).
A limited driving range and an uninteresting driving character hurt the Cooper SE's appeal. But for customers that don't need a 200-plus-mile range and want to go electric for as little money as possible, there's a simple brilliance to Mini's new EV.
BMW In A Mini Wrapper
Put simply, this new EV is a BMW i3s in a Mini package. Again, that's an oversimplification, but it's accurate. The two cars share a 135-kilowatt electric motor, although the Mini, due to the fact that it's a modified combustion-powered vehicle rather than a dedicated battery-electric one like its BMW counterpart, gets a slightly smaller pack. The T-shaped 32.6-kilowatt-hour unit can't quite match the i3S' 42.2-kWh pack in terms of range, though, with a manufacturer-estimated 110 miles of charge compared to 153 for the BMW (EPA estimates aren't out yet).
The lower-capacity battery is short on range, but it's a boon to charging – a 50-kilowatt DC fast charger can get the car from zero to 80 percent charge in 36 minutes and up to 100 percent just under an hour later. A level two home charger can top off the battery to 80 percent in 3.2 hours at a charge rate of 7.4 kW or 2.5 hours at 11 kW. Add an hour to those figures if you want a full battery.
Our tester indicated nearly 150 miles of juice when we set off from Miami's Institute of Contemporary Art on a 70-mile round-trip jaunt to a restaurant north of Fort Lauderdale. We completed the journey, which Mini split between city driving and a run south on Interstate 95, with around 45 miles of range left over. Considering our absolute lack of throttle discipline, losing 105 miles of range on a 70-mile drive isn't outrageous, although, it also isn't totally impressive (the roads were flat as a pancake, after all).
We can say the same of the Cooper's straight-line performance. Sprinting from a standstill to 40 miles per hour takes under four seconds, reflecting the immediacy of the Mini's always-on 199 pound-feet of torque. But that power fades, with the Cooper spending nearly as long running from 40 to 62 mph – the cumulative zero-to-62 time is a modest 7.3 seconds.
Around town, this is a nippy car, able to blast from traffic lights eagerly. In that way, the Cooper SE improves the point-and-squirt nature of the Mini brand. It's fun to surge ahead on an uninterrupted wave of torque. This car can cruise on the freeway happily, although deploying the power does require some strategy before executing passes. The other powertrain bits work well, too.
There are two regen modes, adjusted via a toggle switch below the climate control. They operate independently of the four driving modes – Sport, Mid (Mini's name for Normal), Green, and Green Plus – allowing drivers a greater degree of freedom in how they set up their Mini. High regen, the default on startup, is suitably aggressive, allowing one-pedal driving down to a stop. Low-regen mode means using the responsive and properly balanced brake pedal to bring things to a halt.
The regen modes operate independently from the four driving modes.
The main drive modes didn't seem to have a dramatic impact on the Cooper SE's character, though. We found the biggest impact on accelerator response, with Sport and Green Plus operating at far opposite ends of the spectrum. Green Plus is, unsurprisingly, the key for maximum efficiency, going so far as to limit or even shut down the climate controls to boost range. Green is the best choice for everyday driving, though, retarding the accelerator response without making the Cooper feel sluggish.
Make Beli3ve Mini?
As good of an electric car as the Cooper SE is, it falls short of the tossability and verve of traditional Mini models. That's not obvious on paper, though. The Cooper SE retains the gas-powered Mini's McPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension while adding firmer (non-adaptive) dampers at all four corners. The floor-mounted battery pack forces the center of gravity 1.1 inches lower than the Cooper S, despite the Cooper SE being around half an inch taller. The addition of the battery pack doesn't add much weight, either, with the SE tipping the scales at just over 3,100 pounds to the 2,862-pound, gas-powered, automatic-equipped Cooper S.
Yet despite these facts, this hatchback rarely feels like a Mini in the turns. The Cooper SE feels larger than it is and ponderous because of that, rolling freely while turn-in is numb and sloppy, even if the steering itself remains precise. That sharp, edgy behavior that's typified the Mini driving experience since the brand returned in the early 2000s is absent here, as the electrified Cooper struggles to change direction. The 205/45 tires feature sidewalls that are too small to improve ride quality and too large to aid responsiveness, too.
Past Minis often sacrificed ride comfort for agility. Based on how it handles, though, we aren't sure what the Cooper SE sacrifices ride comfort for. This car is every bit as rough and firm as a gas-only Mini, thanks in no small part to stiffer dampers that transmit imperfections through the seat without filter. High-speed stability also suffers, with the overboosted steering exhibiting nervous behavior on the highway. To be blunt, it feels like the Cooper SE retains much of its gas sibling's ride without adopting an equal amount of its handling character.
Familiar Looks, Unrivaled Affordability
Aside from some EV specific styling accents – designers closed off the grille, a semi-subtle plug motif is present, electric yellow accents abound (don't worry, most of them are no-cost options) – this is the familiar body of the current three-door Mini Hardtop. The range-topping Cooper SE Iconic (the only trim available for us to test) features a nifty set of asymmetrical, drag-reducing 17-inch wheels with yet more yellow accenting. Other aero tweaks are tougher to notice, though. Aerodynamicists modified the rear apron, closed off the underbody, and added smarter ducting to reduce drag
The styling changes are even more minor in the cabin, where the only real distinction is the presence of a new semi-digital instrument cluster that features a traditional analog needle and two periphery displays that flank a central 5.5-inch screen. The left side is as close as this electric car gets to a tachometer, with the needle swinging up and down to display the percentage of accelerator the driver is applying. On the right, a simple display for state of charge sits alongside the icons for things like the turn signals and warning lights.
For customers that need an affordable, all-electric runabout, the Cooper SE is tough to beat.
The move to an electric powertrain in a car that retains such a familiar look doesn't come with a huge increase in price. The Cooper SE modifies the names of the gas-powered Cooper S' trim levels (Classic, Signature, and Iconic become Signature, Signature Plus, and Iconic on the SE), although the equipment is similar across trims. That means modest increases for the SE. Signature, Signature Plus, and Iconic start at $29,900, $33,900, and $36,900, respectively before taking a $7,500 federal income-tax credit (or state and local incentives) into account. Those figures are $2,000, $3,000, and $2,000 more than the equivalent gas-only variants.
The Mini faces two primary obstacles to success. There's no question that its range is pitiful for a new car in 2020. At the same time, it's less fun to drive than its gas-powered counterparts. Neither of those things will earn the Mini the dollars of everyday EV customers or the driving enthusiasts that have long patronized the brand. But those points can't overcome the Cooper SE's impressive affordability, quick recharge speed, and its ability to blend into traffic as just another car. For customers that need an affordable, all-electric runabout, that's a tough combination to beat.
Correction: A previous version of this review listed the BMW i3s' range as 113 miles. This was incorrect. The i3s returns an EPA-estimated 113 MPGe, and offers a maximum range of 153 miles. Also, the Cooper SE does not feature low-rolling resistance tires. The story has been edited to reflect these changes. We regret the errors.