Mini is a brand on the move. Like most brands today, particularly those out of Europe, the BMW-owned British manufacturer is seeking to reinvent itself for the future, with a strong line-up of plug-in hybrid and fully electric vehicles destined for production.
The first of those is headed to Australia in the second quarter of 2019, in the form of the Countryman S E All4 plug-in hybrid (PHEV). To sample what's to come, we journeyed to Colombia for a first drive.
From the outside, it’s not all that difficult to tell the plug-in hybrid apart from the standard Countryman. It has a rather noticeable and colourful cap on the front left, which is where the charging port is for its 7.6kWh (gross capacity) lithium-ion battery pack, located underneath the rear seats. Then there is the yellow electric plug symbol proudly displayed on the other side and the rear.
Powering the plug-in Countryman is two different modes of propulsion. For the front wheels, there is a 1.5-litre, three-cylinder turbocharged petrol combustion engine that pumps out a reasonable 100kW and 220Nm.
For most, that output would be enough to motivate the Countryman in inner-city environments, but in the plug-in, there is also a synchronous electric motor that powers the rear wheels. That particular motor (not engine), produces 65kW of power and 160Nm of torque.
You can’t really combine the two powertrains together for a total torque output, but it makes sense to do so for power, which means the plug-in Countryman S E All4 has 165kW of total power, which allows it to accelerate from 0-100km/h in 6.8 seconds (when the battery is charged). Plenty fast for anyone that appreciates a bit of spirited driving.
Interestingly, the front wheels are driven through a six-speed automatic transmission, while the rear wheels make do with a two-stage, single-speed transmission. Some clever computer system works out how to manage the output of the two different systems in cohesion and allow the Mini to act as a seamless all-wheel-drive, so that you can indeed take it to the beach or comfortably plough through dirt roads – as we did.
Given that Mini’s aim is to produce plug-in and electric vehicles of its existing cars, in accordance with BMW’s plans to produce platforms that can house petrol, diesel, plug-in and electric powertrains all in the same body, the Mini hybrid’s interior is not all that different to the standard models.
Perhaps the only tell-tell sign that you’re sitting in a ‘car of the future’ is the toggle switch marked eDRIVE. It’s rather unassuming, and you’re not likely to play with it all that much, given it behaves best when left in its default AUTO setting. But – say you’re in Paris or London (or Sydney in 30 years time when we have a government that cares about emissions) – and the law that prohibits internal combustion engine cars from entering the city centre has come into effect, you can switch the mode to MAX eDrive.
In that setting, the Countryman will basically turn off its petrol engine and switch to being a fully electric car. It can do so thanks to its battery pack, that provides around 40 kilometres of pure EV driving. You may think that’s not a lot – and you may be right in some cases – but for the purposes of traversing through highly populated areas, it’s more than plenty.
As a pure electric-vehicle, the Countryman S E All4 can get up to 125km/h, so in Australia, it can legitimately do all that is required of it with just the battery alone.
Whilst you can indeed charge the battery in SAVE BATTERY mode on the go, the best way is to plug the car in at home or at work for a recharge. According to Mini, you can recharge your Countryman up to 80 per cent capacity (32km of range) at home in about 3 hours and 15 mins. You can speed that up to 2 hours and 15 minutes if you purchase the Mini Wallbox. (That really should be standard, and we would encourage some negotiation with your dealer to make it so.)
Charging times up to 100 per cent are yet to be provided, but we suspect that it will easily be done in five hours at most even using a household socket. That means a recharge overnight at home will be a non-issue and, given most inner-city Australians drive less than 40km a day, there is a solid chance the Mini can perform all of its duties in pure EV mode.
Best of all, even if your commute to work or elsewhere is taking up the majority of the 40km electric range, you can simply plug it in at work or whilst you shop to any standard socket and have it ready to go again on the way home.
Besides, the beauty of carrying old and new tech is that if you do end up running your battery down to zero, the petrol engine will simply kick in seamlessly and away you go again, so any issues with range anxiety are non-existent.
If the battery charge begins to deplete, you will be switched over to Auto. In this default setting the Mini Countryman S E All4 will work out the best combination of electric and petrol power and you can still drive at speeds up to 80km/h without using a much fuel.
We drove the Countryman extensively in pure EV mode, Auto and also in Save Battery mode (in the fear that we would run out of petrol in the middle of nowhere in Colombia and then resort to electric power) and found it behaving just as you’d expect, except without noise. There is that typical electric motor whine but otherwise, it’s dead quiet inside. Strangely, even the petrol engine hardly seems to make any actual noise.
We didn’t get to fully test to see if the 40km range is valid in regular commuting conditions as we were steaming along on our way to Ecuador as fast as possible, but we had 15-25km of solid electric range before we either sped above 125km/h to keep up with traffic or the battery fell below 20 percent, whereby we would switch to Save Battery mode.
Strangely enough, it was pretty evident by our high-paced race across Colombia that the Mini Countryman S E All4 is not suited to cross-country driving (or in this case, cross-continent as the tour started in North America).
How so? The average fuel economy was a solid 9.2L/100km on our car, which is more than even the diesel models' official figures of 5.2L/100km and insanely higher than the plug-in’s claim of 2.3L/100km.
The problem is these cars aren’t suited to long-distance driving. If you’re going to spend the majority of your time doing long highway commutes, buy a diesel. Carrying two powertrains – one of which only lasts 40km – for long-distance driving is meaningless.
Plug-in hybrids like this are designed for places like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Cities that have high traffic and small distances for their inner-city occupants. Here, the electric powertrain works best for it is effective the majority of the time rather than just being extra weight. It is indeed very plausible that those who commute short distances will never use any fuel (so long as they charge the battery when at work or at home), or if they do need fossil fuel, filling up its 36-litre fuel tank (51 for non-plugin models) will be one of those exercises that will genuinely take place once every few months.
Engine aside, our Countryman rode beautifully over some of the absolute worst roads we have ever encountered anywhere in the world. Although it should be pointed out that our cars had their 18-inch wheels (standard for our market) replaced with 17-inch ones wearing winter tyres. Even so, the standard suspension was well tuned to be comfortable and yet still dynamically competent enough to register the car as a playful Mini.
Also, despite weighing an extra 200kg compared to a comparable non-hybrid Mini, the plug-in hybrid Countryman still felt agile and Mini-like with super responsive steering and limited body roll. Sure, it’s not a John Cooper Works edition that will feel at home on a race track, but with more than adequate pulling force from both its powertrains, this is the sort of car you can definitely still have some fun in.
Ignoring its half-electric heart, the Mini Countryman in and upon itself is actually a very decent car. One which we would recommend to a wide variety of buyers that seek something outside the norm, not yet another BMW X car or Audi Q. There is an intrinsic sense of adventure and fun about a Mini that can’t be easily replicated.
The Countryman has always fought against what it means to be an original Mini. There is nothing small about it, given it’s based on the same architecture as the BMW X1 and X2, the Countryman provides ample space inside and out for those that need the additional rear seat access over a three-door Mini and as yours truly has lived with one (non-hybrid) for a good few months, it would be fair to say that its interior space is more than adequate for childless couples or those with up to two kids, so long as it’s one young child (bulky seat) and one in boosters or older, as we tend to think it will probably struggle with two bulky seats and the required prams two kids under four would demand.
Although the plug-in carries a battery pack, it doesn’t necessarily seem to compromise the boot space, coming in at 405L (down from 460L), although the underbody seems further down towards the road, so it may have some clearance compromises as a result of its battery.
We were also pleasantly surprised by the Countryman’s interior. Though one could argue that it’s a bit ‘old-fashioned’, it still captures the essence of Mini with the big dial in the middle that now houses the latest version of BMW’s excellent iDrive, that supports Apple CarPlay wirelessly (BMW being the first and still the only brand that supports this feature).
The fit and finish are also very much befitting a vehicle in this segment. The air conditioning and media controls, the leather on the seats, the general cabin ambience is – dare we say – actually better than the X1 and X2, making the Mini a more pleasurable place inside than you may get from its German siblings.
We spent around 50 hours in the Mini Countryman S E All4 driving across Colombia and into Ecuador over four days (full travel story of that coming up) and can wholeheartedly say the vehicle never once missed a beat. The Mini’s active safety features, such as autonomous emergency braking, worked flawlessly and the Countryman failed to show even a slight rattle or groan despite the constant near non-stop abuse.
The regular Countryman starts at $41,900 and tops out at $59,990 for the top-spec John Cooper Works model. So far prices and full specification for the plug-in variant remain to be confirmed in 2019, but we suspect it will sit closer to the higher end of that price bracket, more than likely in the low to mid-50s.