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2020 Mini Cooper SE First Drive: All-Electric Comes to Mini

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Auto123 headed to Florida to climb into the 2020 Mini Cooper SE all-electric car for a first drive

Miami, FL - After what’s essentially been a 12-year gestation period, a fully-electrified Mini is ready for the open market. Yes, that’s right: in 2007, there was a Mini Electric development vehicle that saw very limited use by folks who applied to give it a try; they were given short-term leases –one or two years – and Mini used the experience gained to develop full-on production vehicles running on electric power.

Fast-forward to 2017, and the first fruits of that plan came to bear in the form of the Mini Countryman E plug-in hybrid (PHEV). It’s done well to the point where 18% of all Countrymans sold worldwide are of the E variety. It could be argued, though, that the Countryman E was a bit of a step backward in that it still required the use of a gas engine, while the “original” electrified Mini was a full-on EV. 

Which brings us to today, and the model we headed south to Florida to test drive: the 2020 Mini Cooper SE, a fully-electrified Mini that will be available to all worldwide at Mini dealers, right alongside more traditional Minis such as the Cooper S and Clubman. Available as a three-door and a three-door only, it takes all the lessons learned from the Mini Electric, the Countryman E and even the BMW i3, which donated a flipped-around version of its EV battery and motor (it runs as a rear-wheel-drive car, while the Cooper SE is a front-wheel drive car). 

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Photo: D.Heyman

The looks

While you can tell that the Cooper SE is something a little…different, it’s not so obvious that it should deter those buyers who might want to drive an EV but don’t want to be obvious about it. 

That discretion is somewhat thrown to the wind once you get to the upper of three trim levels, though, where one of the standard wheel options is probably the most space-agey styling you’ve ever seen on the showroom floor. It seems that even Mini may be a little more self-conscious about them; when the Cooper SE was shown at the Montreal auto show (an event in the biggest city in arguably the most EV-friendly province), it didn’t have those wheels on. 

Photo: D.Heyman

I know I would never have predicted these to make production, what with their three-spoke-plus-1-hub/spoke combo that evokes the Penrose stairs optical illusion and their three-colour treatment. They’re wild for sure, but can be switched to a number of other styles for no charge at all. 

The next most obvious styling touch is the ultra-low-profile grille. When you’re an EV without an engine to cool, you don’t need a big hole breaking up the front fascia. Instead, you get a nice, clean look with a nice neon line bisecting it. The yellow found there is repeated elsewhere, but in much more subtle fashion, on the “S” on the fender and trunk badging for example. Or the “E” on the floormats, and some flourishes inside. 

The fact is Minis have always had crazy, flary adds that you throw in, whether it be Union Jacks on the wing mirror caps or checkered flag appliqués on the front fenders, so the SE is in good company in this regard.

Photo: D.Heyman
Photo: D.Heyman

In truth, it’s actually the perfect transition to “e” status. You can tell it’s got a little something going on, but you’re not being yelled at about it and instead, you’re left with a very cool take on what is already a very cool car. I’m a fan of what they’ve done with the exterior styling, which somehow manages to re-modernize the Mini shape yet again. 

The interior
Here, the standard 5.5-inch fully-digitized gauge cluster is unique to the SE and recalls what you find in the i3. It’s pleasingly low-profile, providing some airiness to the cabin. Which, of course, is good because as is the case with other Minis, it can get a little cramped inside. 
You can’t blame any of that on the added space required for the 32.6 kWh T-shaped battery mounted in the floor, though. Thanks to the SE having a slightly higher ride height than a standard Cooper, the battery can drop a little lower down, thereby leaving interior passenger space and cargo room unaffected. There are 211 litres of space for stuff with the rear seats up, and 731L once you drop those seats down. And, since the battery adds weight, the centre of gravity is actually lower – by 30 mm – than it is in the standard Cooper.     

Photo: D.Heyman
Photo: D.Heyman

On the road
That should mean a nice, agile handling package with small body roll. Unfortunately, the roads around Miami Beach aren’t the most curvaceous so you have to concentrate a little more as you move through everyday manoeuvres and extrapolate as to what it might feel like when the roads get a little bendier. 

So, while I can’t say if that lowered centre of gravity makes a huge difference to the handling, I can say that the steering is direct. Also, while left-to-right body roll is something you need to worry more about when cornering, the back-and-forth movement of a car’s body in traffic matters in day-to-day driving. We saw plenty of that during our drive, and the SE impressed by keeping everything copasetic here, making sure our heads stayed comfortably against the headrests and not wobbling forth and back like bobbleheads. 

Photo: D.Heyman

Pressing the throttle, meanwhile, especially in the more aggressive of the four drive modes (those would be Green+, Green, Mid and Sport) will push your back against the seat. A single-speed direct drive transmission means immediate delivery of the SE’s 181 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque and some properly zippy forward progress. This car is darn fast, and I’d love to see it go up against one of its traditionally-powered siblings in a drag race. Maybe one day I’ll get the chance but for now, I just know that this is definitely not slow. 

The flip side is that you’ll also slow down right quick, especially if you’re running in the more aggressive of the two regenerative braking modes. If you’re doing that, we’re talking one-pedal driving, meaning you’ll slow down from your average city speed all the way down to zero in short order. So short, in fact, that of the dozen times I tried to stop on the line at a red light, I ended up well short of it in nine of them. It’s a mode that should be reserved for stop-and-go situations and there was a noticeable improvement in range once we switched to the more regenerative mode. 

Photo: D.Heyman

Speaking of which, that’s rated at 235-270 km on the European scale, but 177 km in Canada, which uses a stricter ratings system. That’s a bit of a problem because it means the SE returns less than does the e-Golf or the Chevy Bolt. The challenge in Canada, of course, is that so many of our cars spend their time in adverse weather conditions that will hurt the range of EV cars. 

It's good, then, that the SE comes standard with both standard and DC fast-charge capability, with the latter returning power from 0-80% in about 35 minutes. A fast charger will also be able to be installed at your home for about a $1,350+ installation charge premium over the cost of the SE.

The pricing
Speaking of which, the price of the 2020 Mini Cooper SE starts at $39,990 before the various government rebates for EVs are applied. That’s for the base “Classic” line; the mid-range Premier Line trim comes in at $44,990 and adds 17-inch alloys (up from 16-inch), panoramic sunroof, harman/kardon audio, power-folding side mirror and rear park-distance control. The top-spec Premier+ Line, meanwhile, tops out at $47,990 and adds a larger touchscreen display (from 6.0-inch to 8.8-inch), heads-up display, wireless charging, leather upholstery and, of course, those wheels.

Photo: D.Heyman

The Cooper SE is a strong entry into the Mini lineup, and it’s also a strong entry into the EV market – under the right circumstances. The regeneration system works well and if you are in a climate that allows for it, you’ll likely meet those European numbers. Of course, if you’re going to be doing most of your driving in urban centres then that range becomes less of an issue, especially if you’re close to a charging station. 

In the end, of course, all that’s a little bit secondary in that when you think about it, the Mini was always going to need an electrified version. It’s a trendy car with a youngish buyer base and more and more, that base is looking to EVs. This was always the next frontier for the Mini, and it’s crossed that threshold in good form. 

Yes, more range would have been welcome and if you read the tea leaves, that could very well be the case as we continue down the SE road. For now, it’s time to cheer the long-in-the-making debut of the latest star on the Mini horizon.

Photo: D.Heyman
Photo: D.Heyman

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