► Mini Electric hatch driven
► EV has up to 168-mile range
► Our first test in busy Miami
A fully electric Mini wasn’t even in the product plan when the F56 generation debuted in 2014, but here we are. Mini has finally let us drive its new Electric three-door hatch in full production spec after our earlier prototype drive.
And before we get into it, 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. The compromises were huge – the rear seats vanished, boot space shrank and the EV hardware added 350kg. Lessons learnt from that car fed into 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 its Mini cousin.
It's called the Mini Electric in the UK but, on mainland Europe, it’s named the Mini Cooper SE.
So what exactly is under the skin?
Now, we mention the i3 donating bits, but Mini engineers stress that it absolutely is not a copy-and-paste job. Here the battery pack is rated at 93.2Ah, and a bit smaller than the i3’s 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 slotted under the Mini’s bonnet, cradled in a frame that even uses the existing three engine mounting points.
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 Electric can be fully integrated into the production line with petrol or diesel models like Peugeot’s 208 and e-208.
So it still looks like a Mini
It does, and to some that will be hugely welcome; in fact, that’s what Mini was going for. If you want, you can have it like the car pictured – with bright yellow trim panels and properly cool n’ retro alloys that are shaped like three-pin plug sockets.
But you don’t have to have it like that. Those wheels can be swapped out for other designs, nor is the yellow detailing on the outside obligatory. Minis are funky enough already, so the car arguably doesn’t have to shout about its lack of exhaust; the only mandatory detail is the yellow electric badge.
Same story inside. It’s a Mini, with its classic circular backlit centrepiece with a screen inside, fat toggle switches and the brand’s sturdy-yet-premium material quality. There are a couple of changes, namely the starter button is yellow, as is the detailing on the shifter and an all-new digital instrument display. The latter will also be available on the hot GP when it arrives later this year and has an odd frosted sheen over the cartoonish graphics. We suspect it’s designed in such a way to neutralise direct sunlight, as it has no cowl, but it just looks blurry.
Elsewhere is usual three-door Mini fare: a dinky but usable boot (as mentioned, unaffected by the EV powertrain) and rear seats that are not built for tall humans.
Come on then, does it drive like a Mini?
Almost. 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 – the larger of the two sizes available via the three trim versions, happily named Level 1, 2 and 3.
While the Electric is tuned to feel like a Cooper S, there is a slightly (only slightly) softer edge to the ride when going over lumps and bumps. Still bordering on too firm, with a setup that’s classically taut like all Minis are, but we’d agree that 17s are as big a wheel as this car needs.
The big loser is the steering; it tugs about lumpily under heavy acceleration and there’s a surprising deadspot on the straight-and-narrow. Especially given Mini’s penchant for properly feelsome, accurate and sharp steering no matter what the model, this is a little disappointing.
And what about that electric powertrain?
It’s just enough. Not Tesla fast, obviously, but almost as quick to 62mph on paper as a Cooper S, and capable of 0-37mph in under four seconds. Zippy, with a little whoosh noise as you build up speed. Certainly startled the pickups and glam sports cars at traffic lights at our Miami test location.
There are four drive modes – Sport, Mid, Green and a specifically-designed Green+ - that are largely useless. Keep it in Green. There’s a negligible difference in throttle performance and the additional steering weighting in Sport (given the Electric’s aforementioned number-than-your-average-Mini feel) is needless.
What isn’t needless is the near-one-pedal ability of the Mini Electric’s regen. There’s a switch by the now-yellow starter button that alters the amount of regen on the go; that plus the Green+ mode allows you to hone your technique and steel your nerves as you challenge yourself not to touch the brakes when you see a red light. Rewarding when you get it right and, unlike the Leaf’s e-Pedal, you feel comfortable leaving this setting on at higher speeds as the brake pedal doesn’t turn to mush if you do have to resort to pressing it.
Let’s talk range and charging…
An 80% charge takes 35 minutes on relatively uncommon 50kW DC chargers, around two and a half hours on more numerous 11.2kW AC chargers, or 12 hours to fully charge on a three-pin domestic socket.
As for range, Mini claims between 146-167 miles on a full charge depending on conditions. Entirely reasonable for about 95 per cent journeys, but the business case falters a little when you pin this against rivals. If you want similar range, a VW e-Up is around £5k cheaper, but you can get better range from a similarly-priced (and similarly competitive on finance) Renault ZOE. The biggest threat to the Mini, though, is the Honda e; while the Honda may claim a smaller range, it’s offered again for a similar price on finance and it blows the Mini out of the water in terms of interior wow factor and urban manoeuvrability.
Mini Electric: verdict
If you want a Mini and want to go electric, this is a Mini to look at, sit in and (mostly) drive. The brand’s brief of delivering a three-door car that is largely indistinguishable from its combustion-engined compatriots has been delivered in full. Get your order in.
However, if you simply want a small electric car, the Mini Electric is beset on all sides with fiercely competitive rivals and is a touch less convincing because of it. If you look elsewhere, you can get the same range for less, more range for a similar price or a far more interesting car. Who’d have thought a Mini would be outdone in the character stakes?
Further electric car reading
The best electric cars and EVs on sale today
How much does it cost to charge an electric car?
Future electric cars: upcoming EVs to look out for