Mini is now selling its first plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). Naturally, it has chosen the Countryman SUV as the host, since this vehicle type is where the most sales lie, and it can more easily absorb a battery system's cost and weight imposts.
PHEVs are becoming much more common as emissions regulations tighten across much of the globe. They’re cheaper and lighter than full-electric cars because they have smaller battery packs, and also leverage existing fuel service station networks.
Yet they emit about half the CO2 per kilometre of a comparable combustion car, and also beat regular mild hybrids, in which there’s no direct electric drive below car park speeds.
The 2019 Mini Countryman Cooper S E All4 tested here is priced at $57,200 before on-road costs, which is a not-insubstantial $8000 pricier than a Countryman Cooper, and $3000 more expensive than a Countryman SD AWD diesel. It does, however, undercut the Countryman JCW by $2700.
It’s also pricier than the much larger Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV which sports the same technology (priced between $45,990 and $53,990 depending on spec grade), and is nudging the price of the fully electric Hyundai Kona with 400km-plus range ($59,990).
Anyway, to the car at hand. The Countryman PHEV has two power sources: a 65kW/165Nm electric motor drives the rear wheels, powered by a 7.6kWh li-ion battery pack. A 100kW/220Nm 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine drives the front wheels through a six-speed auto.
This arrangement means you have all-wheel drive (AWD) without the need for a driveshaft and joining clutch when the two systems work together. When doing so, they combine to make up to 165kW and 385Nm, and dash to 100km/h in a Countryman Cooper S-equalling 6.9 seconds.
This time is also just four-tenths slower than said Countryman John Cooper Works, though it lacks the revvy engine, crackling exhaust and overall manic intensity of that hotted-up crossover. This isn’t a performance SUV.
But it’s all about fuel savings. When the engine management is left to its own devices, it combines these power sources and can achieve fuel use on average daily commutes while the battery is full about twice as good as a Toyota Corolla mild-hybrid (2.1L/100km).
But the real benefit is the car’s ability to drive around 40km as a fully electric car using only the rear motor, and being rechargeable to 80 per cent from a regular household socket in just over three hours via the supplied cable. It also trickle-charges as you drive using brake-energy recuperation and can be charged via a higher-output AC wallbox.
While 40km is within the accepted parameters of EV range for PHEVs, new-generation offerings such as the Mercedes-Benz A250e can do around 70km and handle DC rapid charging. Given the tech moves so fast, you do pay a price for being an early adopter.
This EV range is achievable in urban cycling, though if you’re sitting at highway speeds (which the motor can do) then your range will fall well short of this. Pottering around town as an EV is great, since it’s nearly silent and the instantaneous motor torque is highly responsive.
If you push down on the throttle hard, the petrol engine will kick in of its own volition. It’s not particularly offensive when it does so, with minimal vibrations and noise, and because it has direct wheel drive it doesn’t sound off-kilter like a range-extending generator might.
For longer drives, rather than worrying about charging you can fill up the 36L petrol tank and drive around 500km, at which point you fill up at a service station again. Expect fuel use with a low battery of around 6.5–7.5L/100km, since the hybrid system is offset by the battery weight. As with all PHEVs, the ‘official’ fuel-use claim is rubbish. The NEDC measurement simply doesn’t translate properly.
There’s an additional driving mode that switches off the battery and saves its reserves on a long rural drive (where it’s least efficient) for when you return to the city.
So, the tech means you can drive most daily work trips with an electric car, and then head on longer journeys without any stress about range. So far so good. Not everyone is ready for a full-electric car, but this promises to be an interesting stepping stone for the style-set.
In terms of design, the Countryman PHEV isn’t too differentiated. It has bespoke 18-inch wheels and badges, but doesn’t exactly shout out what it is to the world. Other neat touches include LED headlights, logo-projecting puddle lights, and a new aero treatment.
The interior is much better quality than the previous-generation Countryman, though it retains the distinctive design including the circular fascia, airplane-style rocker switches, and propensity to make bizarre chimes when you’ve left a belt undone or a door half-open.
It certainly feels a little more special than the aforementioned Kona with its hard plastics, or the Outlander with its aged and bland layout. I love the black part-leather seats, velour mats and ‘hazy grey’ headliner, and the changing light ring around the centre screen.
You get dual-zone climate control, an electric tailgate, an 8.8-inch screen with sat-nav controlled by a dial, digital radio, two USBs, a wireless phone charger, and active safety systems including active cruise control to 140km/h, and autonomous emergency braking with collision alert.
The back seats are miles better than the old Countryman, with room for two 180cm adults. They also get ventilation and the back row cleverly folds 40:20:40 rather than 60:40. The battery cuts 45L from boot capacity, now 405L. Yet that’s still decent for the class.
Dynamically, you get all-round independent suspension and speed-dependent steering, though the JCW’s adaptive damper control system is missing. The ride is firm but commendably free of jitteriness, while the steering is as direct as a Mini’s should be.
The battery is mounted low in the floor, but the extra weight can be felt in corners, despite the best attempts from the electronic differential lock controlling lateral torque. It’s a dynamic cut above most small SUVs, being a Mini and all, just probably not quite as sharp as the Cooper S.
In terms of ownership, you only get a three-year vehicle warranty, while the battery warranty is six years or 100,000km, usually factoring in 25 per cent depreciation in range. However, provided you don’t rapid-charge the car daily and live in extreme climates, this is an unlikely amount of range reduction. You can also buy five years/80,000km of servicing at purchase.
So, the Countryman PHEV. It’s good to see the BMW Group rolling out such vehicles across its brands, and for some urban-focused buyers after a cute SUV with environmental chops it will hold appeal. Its drivetrain is cohesive, the design typically appealing, the price reasonable, and the packaging imposts minimal.
At the same time, you can rightly expect PHEV technology to improve rapidly, becoming more common, cheaper, and able to drive electrically for longer.