► Electric prototype driven
► Made in Oxford – for now
► Will cost around £29k
A fully electric Mini wasn’t even in the product plan when the F56 generation debuted in 2014, but today we’re driving an EV Mini prototype that enticingly bears the Cooper S name. It’s an early taste ahead of the first production Mini Cooper SEs rolling off the Plant Oxford assembly line much later this year, with first UK deliveries in March 2020. Pricing is TBC, but expect a £29k ballpark figure before the £3.5k government grant is applied for electric cars – using the Cooper S name helps to disguise this price, so it’s crucial the drive lives up to those high expectations.
Why did an electric Mini finally get the green light?
Well, this isn’t actually the first electric Mini. This latest generation does have a plug-in hybrid Countryman, and BMW experimented with the Mini E back in 2008, but only 600 were built and leased, and the compromises were huge – the rear seats vanished, boot space shrank and the EV hardware added 350kg. Lessons learnt from that car fed in to development of the i3, but even BMW engineers admit they didn’t anticipate how quickly battery technology and affordability would improve by now. So it’s a neat completion of the circle that the i3 is now donating its EV heart to the Mini Cooper S.
Don’t tell me, two-seater only, excessive weight, no room for shopping...
Actually no, because the hardware is neatly integrated. The lithium-ion battery produced at BMW’s Dingolfing plant is more comparable to the 94Ah square-shaped slab under the 2017 i3 (the i3 began life with 60Ah and has since graduated to 120Ah), but here it’s rated at 92Ah, and a bit smaller because it’s arranged in a T-shape beneath the floor. The top of the T goes across the rear axle, the straight bit along the spine of the floorpan.
The punchier i3 S donates its power electronics and 135kW/181bhp electric motor, produced by BMW at its Landshut plant. These components are normally located at the rear of the i3 S, but they’re turned through 90 degrees and slotted under the Mini’s bonnet, cradled in a frame that even uses the existing three engine mounting points.
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Weight increases 120kg to 1350kg, a third of the Mini E’s penalty. There is no detriment to interior packaging either, with just a little foam removed from the rear bench to keep rear-passenger hip points at the same level – they’re sitting on top of the battery, remember. The fuel filler flap is converted to house two charge points. All this means minimal changes to the body-in-white, and that the Cooper SE can be fully integrated into the production line with petrol or diesel models.
Does it live up to the Cooper S badge?
I think it does, and our test drive through a coned course didn’t shy away from tight turns, big stops and quick flicks of direction. Standing-start acceleration is perky if hardly of the all-hell-breaks-loose kind (expect 0-62mph in 7-8sec), but mid-range urge is strong and instant and if anything intensified by the curious lack of noise.
Even more striking is the way the Cooper SE powers out of tight hairpins – flatten the throttle and the understeer and scrabble you’d expect just doesn’t materialise, and instead the tyres simply hook up. It’s like an aggressive limited-slip differential and subtle traction control working in unison.
The big loser is the steering – already a bit bulky feeling, it tugs about lumpily under heavy acceleration. The i3 S, of course, sends the same power to the rear wheels, so doesn’t suffer any steering corruption at all.
The challenge for Mini’s engineers during the remainder of development is to maintain this astonishing traction from tight corners with more consistent steering behaviour – no mean feat given the instant torque that floods in.
Petrol converts might wonder if they should adjust the regenerative braking too, because it’s fierce if far from unusual for an EV – lifting the throttle often suffices for braking, but it’s certainly difficult to be smooth on a track layout like ours. More natural is the second, less aggressive setting – it’s much more like lifting the throttle in a normal car, but the drawback is you feed less energy back to the battery via the electric motors.
Is it fun through quick changes of direction?
Yes. The suspension is tuned to give a similar feel to a petrol Cooper S, but the physics are quite different. It’s raised ‘1-2cm’ compared with a petrol Cooper S to give the battery more clearance, but the centre of gravity is lower because more mass is concentrated lower down.
It also has to account for a significantly altered weight distribution, with comparable weight over the nose to a petrol model but overall mass shifts rearwards from the default 60/40 front-to-rear split to the Cooper SE’s 54/46 due to the battery. Only 16- and 17-inch alloys are offered, because apparently it all feels too stiff on the 18-inch rims a Cooper S can get away with. We drove on the 17s.
Barrel into a slalom and the Cooper SE feels wide, low and short, with a planted but playful dynamic. The front tyres bite crisply and the rear end feels infinitely adjustable – there’s more weight back there, remember, and the instant torque makes it highly throttle adjustable. It’s great fun as it dances nimbly through quick direction changes, so it’s a pity you can’t completely disengage stability control.
There is, however, plenty of entertainment on offer here, especially we drove only in the default setting, not Sport (or Green).
How long does it take to charge and how far can I drive?
An 80% charge takes 40 minutes on relatively uncommon 50kW DC chargers, three hours on more numerous 11.2kW AC chargers, or 12 hours to fully charge on a three-pin domestic socket. The question mark relates to the range, which is awaiting homologation. But there’s no question it will fall significantly below the 146-158 miles offered by the most comparable 94Ah BMW i3, which is 105kg lighter. No wonder Mini is quick to point out that global customers typically average 25 miles daily. Fingers crossed the confirmed range doesn’t disappoint too much.
Mini SE prototype: first impressions
The Mini Cooper SE is testament to how far battery technology has come in the last decade. The first series-production Mini EV suffers few of the compromises of its experimental Mini E predecessor, interior space is identical to a petrol or diesel variant, weight increases by a reasonable 120kg over a Cooper S auto, and even the price is in the Cooper S ballpark, at around £26k once the £3500 government grant for EVs is applied.
A few laps round a relatively tight coned course suggests it’s extremely fun to drive too, steering corruption aside, though only a more in-depth road drive of the finished car will provide the full picture, particularly regarding how well this car rides. We also need clarity on just how far below 146 miles the range will fall.
But on evidence so far, it’d be exciting to see an electric John Cooper Works in the next-generation product plan.
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