BMW was a pioneer in the rollout of electric vehicles (EVs), but its Mini subsidiary has waited until now to begin series production of its own battery-driven car, called the Cooper SE.
Well, kind of. It did make 500 units of the two-seat Mini E in 2009 and 2010 for Europe and the US, but they were lease cars designed to trial BMW's EV technology. This car is a proper production model.
With demand for zero-tailpipe-emission vehicles in the world’s most congested cities growing at pace – some are taxing or even banning combustion engines in certain areas – the obvious Mini to electrify was the signature three-door hatch.
The Countryman SUV is instead offered as a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), while owners of the petrol and diesel Mini 5-Door and Convertible range are thought by the company to do more long-distance road trips, where EVs make for less compelling companions.
The electric Mini will hit Australia in July, and tantalisingly the brand has promised a cheaper price than an equivalently-optioned Cooper S, pointing to a local price of about $45,000. This means it could and should undercut the Hyundai Ioniq and Nissan Leaf.
The first year’s supply of just 80 units for Australia will sell quickly if the early run of deposits is to be extrapolated regardless, but supply could improve for next year and carrying such a (relatively) attractive price tag could be a huge fillip for the car.
While many EVs including BMW’s own mould-shattering i3 sit upon dedicated electric vehicle platforms engineered for just that purpose, Mini has instead utilised a version of the petrol and diesel models’ FWD platform labelled internally as ‘UKL’.
This means the Cooper SE can be more easily built at the same historic Oxford factor as its combustion siblings, in the same time window thanks to an expensive line upgrade, and most importantly to a price well below that of the i3.
But let’s not spin it too much. It’s also necessitated by the fact that Mini’s board only signed off on the SE’s production three years ago, long after the current generation combustion Minis were developed.
Strangely, Mini admits it had not planned to make an EV until its next generation of product, due around 2022, using a BMW Group platform designed to handle full electrification from day one. One Mini manager made it clear that this Cooper SE would have a fairly brief production life as a result.
Is it just a toe in the water or something more substantive?
Leveraging BMW’s experience, many i3 parts are used. The 135kW and 270Nm motor is the same, though in this application it has been turned 90 degrees and mounted at the front axle rather than the rear. Also carried over are the single-speed transmission, and the clever anti-slip controller mounted nearer the wheels so it can cut in faster.
The battery tech is the same, meaning Mini saved on development and got proven equipment, though the pack is T-shaped and has a smaller capacity of 32.6kWh compared to the i3. This smaller pack is lighter, meaning the EV weight impost over a petrol Cooper S is a reasonable 145kg.
While the i3 uses carbon-fibre reinforced plastic parts to cut weight, and recycled interior components to reduce waste, both were deemed too expensive to be shared with the Cooper SE, given the goal was to make it as compellingly priced as possible.
The claimed driving range is up to 270km, but 230km on the European WLTP driving cycle, which is thereabouts with those rivals mentioned earlier, plus its main competitor the Honda e. Given the target buyer is a city slicker driving that many kilometres in an average week, the balance seems appropriate.
Remember, a bigger battery with a longer range both adds significant cost to the buyer (every kWh of capacity adds between $200 and $300), and is more energy intensive to produce in the first place.
As ever, the range’s usefulness comes down to your access to charging options. In Europe, the US and Asia (or New Zealand) where infrastructure is ubiquitous, this won’t cause an issue. Australia remains behind, despite the emergence of green shoots such as Chargefox.
A DC charge putting 50kW of energy into the battery gets the car to 80 per cent in 35 minutes, and a single-phase 7.2kW AC wallbox will do the same in three-and-a-half hours. You can also trickle charge it by plugging its yellow cable into a wall socket if you’re patient.
The thing you notice when driving this Mini Cooper SE is how normal it feels. Its ride quality over choppy roads was excellent, absorbing speed bumps and road cracks exceptionally. For urban commuting, it makes an exceedingly comfortable and quiet companion.
Despite the extra weight, the silent e-motor enables a zero to 100km/h time of 7.3 seconds, or a standstill to 60km/h in 3.9s, meaning you’ll beat up many performance cars in traffic light drags. It’s also devoid of the sort of wheel slip you get in a Hyundai Kona Electric.
There are also two brake energy recuperation modes, the latter of which slows the car at 0.19g when you lift off the throttle, saving your brakes the burden. But there’s no Nissan Leaf-style one-pedal driving.
Mini also talked about the fact the battery’s resultant lower centre of gravity counterbalances the mass and means the car keeps its famed ‘go-kart handling’. So why, we wonder, was the global press launch in garish Miami where there’s not a corner to be found?
It was either a public relations oversight, or camouflage. We await an Australian drive on our choice of roads to see whether this little EV can compete with the Cooper S dynamically.
We will say that the sport mode software sharpens the throttle take-up and adds steering response immediately from centre, making it notably weightier like older Minis.
Design-wise, those nifty yellow highlight surrounds, new wheels, and a drag-reducing blank slate where the front grille would normally go, are the obvious model-specific tweaks. In a world of boring EVs, this car adds some proper emotional appeal.
The cabin design is recognisably ‘Mini’, though this one gets a unique digital instrument cluster backed up by a flip-up heads-up display, new gear shifter design, and remote cabin temperature control adjusted through a smartphone app while the car is on charge.
Additionally, the cabin can be heated by a pump that collects and distributes waste heat from the battery and motor, and which draws 75 per cent less battery energy than a normal system.
The big take-away for me is how much more robust this generation Mini’s cabin is compared to older efforts. The design is evolutionary but the material and build quality is vastly improved. Older models used to rattle and squeak, but not this one.
However, the small centre touchscreen running navigation and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto is starting to look a little small next to the competition, hidden away in the round fascia like it is.
What’s more impressive is the fact that Mini met the design brief of keeping cargo space and passenger room identical to a combustion version, with 211L of storage growing to 731L with the back seats folded. It’s a small car that could ill-afford space reductions.
Alec Issigonis would be happy about that bit.
From an ownership perspective, you get Mini Australia’s regular three-year warranty, which is starting to look pretty short given most competitor brands offer at least five years cover now. The battery pack has the requisite eight-year/100,000km warranty, should you experience degradation.
So on first impression, what do we think?
The Cooper SE’s driving range is competitive with the Ioniq and Leaf’s and will suit markets with adequate charging options perfectly, and while it’s a smaller package than that pair, it’s undoubtedly a cooler one.
Sure, there’s nothing otherwise revolutionary about it, but that was the BMW i3’s job. This car’s job is to convert more people to EV driving.
And despite being a conservative effort with a short shelf life ahead, it does indeed do enough to tempt Mini’s well-off, city-dwelling, progressive-thinking buyer demographic into something that might salve their climate anxiety without sucking the joy from their garage. Or Newtown/Windsor street space.
If BMW Australia can deliver on the company’s global promise of undercutting an equivalently-specific Cooper S then it’ll be all the more compelling. Of course, with such minimal supply available in year one, that’s probably academic.