Style and substance! We compare a pair of upmarket, High Street dwellers that plug-in with a conscience. The Mini Cooper Countryman SE Hybrid faces off against the Volvo XC40 Recharge to see which one puts the best foot forward as a stepping stone to your electric driving future.
Let’s be honest. A transition from petrol to electric power for your next new car is somewhat of an inevitability. All you need to do is read the news to see the volume and pace at which manufacturers are launching cars that utilise alternatives to petrol and diesel for propulsion.
And while parts of the world may be measurable years ahead of our little island nation in terms of adoption, the best way you can buy your ticket on the electric train without waiting for the chicken-or-egg status of local charging infrastructure to catch up is with a petrol-electric hybrid.
A Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, or PHEV, offers a best of both worlds solution, particularly for urban dwellers, of providing a usable amount of silent electric range with the backup of an efficient petrol engine.
So, for this comparison, we’ve got a pair of up-market urban favourites, the 2021 Mini Countryman Hybrid and 2021 Volvo XC40 Recharge Hybrid. Both combine the specific style of their respective brands with a usable gateway to full-electric power.
2021 Mini Cooper Countryman SE 'Signature' Hybrid
The Mini Countryman was given a midlife refresh for the 2021 model year, and we are testing the mid-level Cooper SE Signature model priced from $66,200 (an $8000 premium over the petrol-only Cooper S Signature at $58,200) before on-road costs.
Normally when talking Minis, this is where we would reel off a library of options, but Mini has (thankfully) made things simpler with its variant mix and there are no additional decisions to make other than a few appearance tweaks, like the interior and paint colour (ours is White Silver Metallic) where any of the eight exterior choices are a no-cost selection.
That means the panoramic sunroof, black trim elements, 19-inch alloys (in either 'British Spokes' seen here, or Turnstile designs), bonnet stripes and integrated roof rails are part of the standard equipment list. Nice one Mini, about time!
The facelift has given a slight refresh to the LED headlamp and running lamp signature, plus you now score the in-case-you-missed-the-wheels-here-are-more Union Jack motif LED tail lamps.
This is combined with a more aggressive front bumper and air dam, and some requisite yellowy-green ‘S’ and ‘E’ badging (one of which hides the charging port) to let everyone know you’ve bought the environmentally conscious Countryman.
Power comes from a 110kW/220Nm 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine and a 55kW/165Nm electric motor for a combined 165kW. Under the floor is a 9.6kWh battery pack that offers a claimed 55km electric-only range.
The Mini drives all four wheels – with the petrol engine and conventional six-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels, and the electric motor powering the rear axle. Claimed combined fuel consumption is 2.4L/100km.
2021 Volvo XC40 Recharge
Flying the blue and yellow flag and brandishing the ‘Hammer of Thor’ LED running lamps is the range-topping 2021 Volvo XC40 Recharge, which offers a 132kW/265Nm 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine and 60kW/160Nm electric motor for a combined power output of 192kW. All this drives the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
To store all those handy electrons, the Volvo adds a 10.7kWh battery pack that has a claimed 46km of electric range, and as a hybrid combination has a claimed fuel consumption of 2.2L/100km.
Pricing starts from $64,990 (also an $8000 jump from the petrol R-Design variant) before options and on-road costs.
There are options, too, with our Crystal White Peal example (one of seven paint choices with all but solid Black Stone adding $1150) adding the Versatility Pack (load protection net, power rear folding headrests $230), Climate Pack (heated front seats, windscreen washers and steering wheel $700), 360-degree camera ($990), tinted rear windows ($700), heated rear seats ($350) and parking assistant ($650) for a total price of $69,760 before on-road costs.
That’s not to say you don’t get a well-equipped car without these additions, though, with LED head and cornering lamps, 20-inch wheels, panoramic sunroof and R-Design styling package all included.
The XC40 is a very sharp-looking machine, with the two-tone black roof adding an extra element of impact to the car’s modern and ‘Scandi-cool’ street appeal. There’s a subtle embossed Recharge on the C-pillar, and a slightly less subtle charge-flap on the front fender acting as the only clues to the Volvo’s plug-in skill set.
|2021 Mini Cooper Countryman SE Hybrid||2021 Volvo XC40 Recharge|
|Premium paint cost||-||$1150|
|Warranty||Three years / unlimited km||Five years / unlimited km|
|Service interval||12-month / condition-based||12-month / 15,000km|
|Service pricing||From $1595 for five years||$1500 (three years), $2500 (five years)|
|ANCAP safety rating||Five-star (2017) specific to Countryman Cooper D||Five-star (2018) specific to AWD variants|
Interior Comfort and Packaging
Remember that Goodies episode where they move to a lighthouse and go a bit mad because everything is round? Well, welcome to Mini town!
The round centre stack includes the integrated infotainment screen and fun dynamic interior lighting ring that sits above a trio of round air-conditioning controls. On the console below this are a pair of round cupholders that sit in front of the round transmission trim.
On the steering wheel (obviously round), you’ll find six round buttons to control audio and driver assistance functions. Feedback is given through a mostly round instrument cluster, and if you’ve got to this point and feel things are just getting too circular… Then you’ll be pleased to know the doorhandles to get out are round too.
That said, if you like Mini’s approach, then you’ll enjoy the cabin, roundness and all.
You sit reasonably low for an SUV, making the Mini feel more sporty to be in. The seats are comfortable (heated with memory) and have a Union Jack embossed into the headrests as part of the Mini Yours interior trim package. Because of course, they do.
Rear passenger room is quite impressive for the car’s size (2670mm wheelbase), and the leather is soft and comfortable. You can recline the seats for even more comfort, and while there is no dedicated centre armrest, the middle ’20 per cent’ of the backrest can fold down if you want something to lean on.
There are two USB-C ports and air vents, but the trim and its implementation are a little light and plastic-feeling. You do get a handy blind over the rear sunroof panel, though.
A powered tailgate conceals a cargo volume of 405L (down on the 450L of a non-hybrid Countryman due to the battery pack), which can be expanded to 1275L with the handy 40:20:40 split rear seat.
While there are no remote releases for the backrest from the boot itself, you will find a 12-volt outlet and storage under the floor for the home charger. What isn’t under the floor, though, is a spare tyre, with the Mini relying on run-flat Continental tyres.
Volvo knows how to make great seats, and as such the front cabin of the XC40 is very comfortable. Things like the carpeted transmission tunnel, contrast stitching on the leather trim, frameless rear-view mirror and knurled switchgear make the little Volvo feel decidedly luxurious.
Basic functions like the window demister are one-press buttons on the console, but everything else needs to be accessed through the 9.0-inch portrait touchscreen. This is good for minimalistic interior design, but it can sometimes be hard to use on the move, with many functions needing you to swipe left or right then enter menus to access.
There are twin USB ports, a wireless charge pad and good storage options too.
For rear passengers, the comfortable leather continues but leg room is quite tight for taller occupants (despite a longer 2702mm wheelbase). That said, you sit reasonably upright and there is good head room, even with the sunroof, plus a central armrest with cupholders.
Our car features optional heated rear seats ($350), but even without these the environment is well configured, with a pair of USB-C ports, air vents and map pockets making it a pleasant space for those riding in the back.
Of special note are the ‘coin catcher’ trays between the seat base and the doors. Clever.
The Volvo has a hands-free power tailgate (with an amusing Ikea-like illustration sticker on how to use it) and a cargo capacity of 460L. This is the same as the regular XC40 due to the battery pack's integration along the side of the car’s floor pan.
Folding the 60:40 split seats will expand cargo to 1336L, and there is a space-saver spare wheel under the floor. Longer loads can use the integrated ski-port in the centre seat, and there is a 12-volt outlet for convenience.
|2021 Mini Cooper Countryman SE Hybrid||2021 Volvo XC40 Recharge|
|Boot space||405L / 1275L||460L / 1336L|
Infotainment and Connectivity
The 8.8-inch LCD touchscreen that sits within the circular centre stack, and is sadly not round itself, runs Mini’s 4G-powered Mini Connected telemetry software that combines handy info like live traffic maps on the navigation screens with the ability to communicate with the car remotely.
It’s a very handy and often overlooked function in the Mini, and means you can lock and unlock the car remotely with your phone, and even send navigation destinations to the vehicle from wherever you are (in the world).
Further, you can use it to remotely monitor the car’s charging status, which makes it an indispensable part of owning an EV.
For more day-to-day use, the system features a DAB+ digital radio tuner, there is a USB port on the console, then another plus a wireless charging pad in the central armrest. Full-screen Apple CarPlay is standard, and while there is the option to use it wirelessly, we find it works better when tethered with a cable.
Sound quality from the 12-speaker Harman Kardon sound system is good too.
Volvo’s 9.0-inch portrait touchscreen not only looks like an iPad, but it also behaves like one too with swipe and pinch gestures making it very easy to get used to.
The home screen and iPad-like home button keep primary functions within easy reach, but the driver assistance and more advanced functions can only be accessed by swiping left or right and exploring the menus within.
It is a well-featured system, with a DAB+ digital radio tuner and the ability to connect to Volvo’s internet-based app and software updates, but it can be a bit clumsy to use when on the move. I do quite like the fuel consumption or energy-use graph display, though.
The 13-speaker Harman Kardon sound system offers impressive quality and brightness at high volume too.
The Countryman scored five stars when tested by ANCAP in 2017 based on testing of a Countryman Cooper D, with a 51 per cent safety assist system rating. But despite the mid-cycle refresh for this year, it still doesn’t include blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert or lane-keep assist.
It scored 90 per cent for adult occupant protection, 80 per cent for children and 64 per cent for pedestrians.
When tested in 2018, the Volvo XC40 scored five stars from ANCAP, using an AWD version as the tested model, with a 78 per cent safety assist score. While the car has a rear collision warning with brake function, there is no rear cross-traffic alert or a forward junction assist brake feature.
Adult occupant protection was rated at 97 per cent, child at 84 per cent and 71 per cent for pedestrians.
Value for Money
Mini’s more simplified approach to the Countryman range and option choices make it much easier for buyers to see and understand what they ‘get’ on their car. The Signature is $2200 more expensive than the ‘Classic’ and $2800 more affordable than the ‘Mini Yours’. With only slightly more up-market trim separating it from the top-tier car, in terms of Countryman Hybrid options, the middle-rung trim is certainly the pick of the range.
The generous standard equipment and clarity around pricing, even when making a paint choice, are to be commended, whereas the three-year warranty is something of a relic in the current environment. Five years minimum please Mini.
Servicing through the capped-price Mini Service Inclusive program runs to $1595 for a basic five-year package or $4155 for comprehensive cover (which includes brake pads, rotors, wipers and spark plugs) over the same time period. You can even add a year of monthly washes, plus an annual detail, for $650.
Making heated seats (a $550 option on their own) and the 360-degree camera ($990 option) added extras is pretty cheeky at the level of the XC40 Recharge. Buyers of a premium car should expect all the premium features as a base, and leave options to personalise their vehicle rather than up-spec it to where it should have been.
That said, the five-year warranty and three-year ($1500) or five-year ($2500) service plans make ownership costs very clear from the outset.
That said, though, the $8000 premium to step from a petrol R-Design XC40 to the Recharge is not going to realise itself through fuel efficiency.
The part-digital 5.5-inch display in the Countryman SE is essentially lifted from the full-electric Mini Cooper, and provides a clear but simple readout of speed, fuel and battery charge state.
You can cycle through other readout functions, but only show one at a time. It works, but it is pretty basic.
Adaptive cruise control is standard, but as the system uses a camera rather than radar to scan ahead, it can be easily tricked by bright sunlight. So don’t plan on travelling west in the afternoon.
The rear camera quality is good, but there is sadly no surround-view option available.
The digital instrument cluster in the XC40 is clear, well-featured and shows where you are operating in the car’s power state, be it petrol, electric or regenerative charging.
All the driver assistance functions are at your fingertips, and while the hieroglyphics on the buttons take a bit of time to understand, it is easy to use while on the move.
Despite being optional, the sharpness of the 360-degree camera is impressive, and it makes tight urban manoeuvres easy to judge.
With a claimed 0–100km/h sprint time of 6.8 seconds, the hybrid Countryman has plenty of punch from its powertrain combo.
The three-cylinder engine offers peak torque from 1300 to 4300rpm, giving the car a wide and flexible powerband in the perfect zone for urban running. Despite its ‘green’ credentials, it still feels like a fun and sporty Mini.
Changing over from electric to petrol and back again is smooth, with only the buzz and vibration of the engine kicking in acting as an indication that things are working away under the bonnet.
There are multiple drive modes, including sport and economy settings, to make the best use of the combined petrol-electric power or simply opt for the most efficient running of the Countryman around town.
While there is an element of regenerative braking when decelerating, the system isn’t all that aggressive, so the car doesn’t tend to recover energy much unless you are on the down-side of a steep hill.
The combination of a revvy three-cylinder and electric drive assistance gives the XC40 a very zippy nature. The bulk of the engine’s 265Nm is available between 1500 and 3000rpm, which gives the little SUV all but immediate urgency off the line. So much so that Volvo claims a 7.3sec sprint to 100km/h – not bad for a 1760kg SUV.
You are able to select a regular or electric-only drive mode if you wish to force the car to its most efficient setting.
On the move, the Volvo’s twin-clutch transmission is swift at changing ratios, but at parking speeds there is a clear weakness. The lever doesn’t move in a physical ‘gate’ and as such needs to be tapped down from drive to neutral and again to reverse. Heading the other direction requires the same three-stage approach.
I’m sure you’d get used to it, but even when driving the Volvo around for the best part of a week, I constantly found myself in neutral while trying to make a swift change from drive to reverse while parking or turning.
That aside, you can put the car into a ‘B’ setting that ups the ante of the energy recovery system to force-charge the cells while driving around. It’s not overly efficient, nor does the car have a highly aggressive regenerative braking system to support this, meaning you’re still best to plug the car in at night to charge it, rather than try for a self-contained power ecosystem.
|2021 Mini Cooper Countryman SE Hybrid||2021 Volvo XC40 Recharge|
|Engine format||1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo and single electric||1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo and single electric|
|Power||100kW @ 6000rpm / 55kW electric||132kW @ 5800rpm / 60kW electric|
|Torque||220Nm @ 1300–4300rpm / 165Nm electric||265Nm @ 1500–3000rpm / 160Nm electric|
|Power to weight ratio||97.3kW/t||109.1kW/t|
|Fuel consumption (claimed)||2.4L/100km||2.2L/100km|
|Fuel consumption (on test)||5.8L/100km||6.0L/100km|
We managed a bit under 40km (against the claim of 55–60km) of full-electric driving around town, which is honestly enough to satisfy the daily commute and a number of other errands for most urban drivers.
You can drive in one of three modes: Save Battery to prioritise the petrol engine; Max eDrive to prioritise the electric motor; and Auto eDrive to balance the mix of the two.
Mini claims a combined fuel consumption cycle of 2.4L/100km, which isn’t really achievable on trips longer than 50km, as once the battery depletes, you’re chewing nothing but fuel.
Our average for the week, of a mixture of urban and highway driving in the auto eDrive setting, was 5.8L/100km, which is a good 13 per cent less than the petrol-only Countryman S claim of 6.7L/100km (if you would even achieve that).
As noted, too, the energy recovery function of the regenerative braking system is much less forceful than in a pure-EV, whether that’s good (for a driving experience) or bad (from an economy standpoint) is up to you.
The Mini PHEV can accept up to 22kW from a Type-2 AC charger, which allows you to get a full charge into the car in about 40 minutes.
The XC40’s ‘B’ drive mode helps use regenerative braking to charge the battery while you’re zipping about town and enabled us to reach 40km of electric-only driving, which is within cooee of the claimed 46km range.
You can adjust the severity of the energy recovery while on the move, but even in its most aggressive setting it’s well off the sensation you have in a pure-electric vehicle.
Along with this, you can select to change from the standard Hybrid drive mode (automatic use of battery and petrol engine) to Power (both power sources for optimal performance), Pure (electric only), and Off Road (lessened throttle sensitivity).
Volvo claims a combined-cycle consumption of 2.2L/100km, and while our use was higher at 6.0L/100km, it is still lower than the 7.7L/100km claim of the petrol-only XC40.
Recharging the Recharge isn’t as fast as some, as the car can only accept 3.7kW from an AC charger. This means your battery will take up to three hours (when flat) at the fastest rate, or close to 10 hours from a standard 240-volt wall socket and the included home charger.
Handling and Dynamics
The lower stance and seating position, paired with well-weighted steering, give the Countryman a fun and sporting character on the road. It’s a likeable car to drive, and delivers on the engagement factor we’ve come to expect from Mini.
Parking and general manoeuvrability are good, and the car’s 11.4m turning circle means you can manage a normal four-lane U-turn without too much trouble.
The Volvo errs to the lighter side of steering feel, and as such is an easy car to pilot about town. It is still direct and accurate, but the power assistance just makes it effortless in tighter confines, with the 11.4m turning circle more than adequate for a sneaky U-turn in traffic.
Even on big 19-inch wheels (with run-flat tyres), the Mini is compliant and comfortable around town, and it handles most surface changes well.
The tight and sporty feel you want from the brand is there, although the hybrid Countryman weighs in a hefty 235kg more than a ‘regular’ Countryman S (1715kg v 1480kg), which does account for its settled ride.
With this in mind, if you hit something a little sharper or with too much pace, the suspension will compress quickly and return a solid ‘thud’ in protest of your behaviour of trying to hustle the heavy Mini a little too eagerly.
We wouldn’t want any larger than the 20-inch wheels on the XC40 (an extra $3500 will get you a set of diamond-cut 21s), as while the ride is comfortable, it is possibly at the edge of the daily-use envelope.
The light steering and quiet cabin add to the sensation of a pleasant drive, and only being 50kg heavier than the regular petrol R-Design makes the overall on-road behaviour of the Recharge very well sorted.
Fit for Purpose
So, how do the neighbours know you’ve thrown an additional $8000 at your boutique SUV to make it a plug-in? Yellow badges of course!
Otherwise, the Cooper SE Countryman looks and feels the same as a traditionally powered Mini, and is all the better for it. The hybrid drivetrain may not be ground-breaking in its implementation, by still offering a limited range and modest energy recovery system, but the car works well as a quiet urban runner, especially if you can plug it in overnight to keep its electrons topped up.
Pair that with a Mini that drives like a Mini, and you’ve got a nice balance on the road to a full-electric future.
Just know that you’ll never recoup the price premium in fuel savings, and the 2021 Mini Cooper Countryman SE Hybrid works well as a stepping stone, an SUV and a Mini, all in one neat yellow-badged package.
Perhaps where the Volvo plays its hand the best is as an overall package. Tell yourself this is a $70,000 hybrid SUV and by the sheer style and luxurious implementation presented, you’ll forget a regular petrol model is some $8000 cheaper.
As an exercise in modern urban style, from drivetrain to headlights, the 2021 Volvo XC40 Recharge is a premium and practical way to make an initial step toward an electric-powered transport solution of our hopefully not too distant future.
In the same way you have a desired outcome of a sporting match before a coin has even been tossed, or know precisely what you want to eat before glancing at the menu, the result of this comparison was decided in your mind before you even read a word.
Quite simply, you are either a Mini person or a Volvo person.
Both our vehicles respond to the brief of offering a stylish and practical urban-centric SUV with a flexible hybrid drivetrain. There’s equipment, plush trimmings and clever technology across the board, but from a purely aesthetic and brand-appeal position, I don’t imagine any number of nuanced words could change your mind from your initial favoured position.
And you know what? That’s okay. Neither car is perfect, and yet neither stands out from the other in any measurable way.
The Mini Countryman is a little sportier, the Volvo XC40 a bit more luxurious. Whatever your preference, both provide buyers with a compelling and competent stepping stone from a known platform to an electric one.
If you came in liking the Mini, you’ll get what you expected. Funky styling, a plethora of Union Jack motifs, tighter, more direct steering, but the constraints of an ‘everything is round’ dashboard, slightly older and more simplistic driver technology, and a smaller boot. It does have faster-charging internals and the always excellent Mini Connected telemetry software too.
Likewise, if your blood runs blue and yellow, the Volvo dishes up plenty of Scandinavian appeal: great seats and premium trim elements, but an often clumsy infotainment interface, clunky transmission and tighter rear leg room. It does have a bit more oomph, more safety tech and a longer warranty too.
Parking your style preference for a moment, then, choosing either vehicle will give you a usable electric range, zippy performance and a practical cabin that works effortlessly around town.
To that end, make the decision that best suits your instincts, and you’ll enjoy your first foray into the electric future that is making its way, slowly but surely, and arguably stylishly, to a neighbourhood near you.
If it were our money, we’d plump for the Volvo largely because its luxurious and stylish nature is more in tune with silent electric motoring. And you just can’t beat those seats.