A racing car. An iconic vehicle of the 1960s. A transformation due to BMW’s takeover and relaunch of variants. That brief history hardly scratches the proverbial surface of the MINI Cooper’s history. And now, with the introduction of the new electric MINI, the British brand combines sustainable mobility with a ride that’s fun, a design that’s unique and expressive, and a quality that has stood decades of scrutiny.
Last week, I had the chance to drive the electric MINI in advance of its US release in March. 32 writers — most of whom found the cold January day in southwest Florida to be moderate and soothing — broke into 16 pairs and test drove the electric MINI through Miami’s city streets.
Ticket to Ride
We gathered in a granite courtyard of the Institute of Contemporary Art, just down the street from the Prada and Tesla stores. A sculpture of a half bulldozer cut into a double stack of granite flanked us on one side, and a 4-story glass facade with shadowed art on pedestals hovered on the other. Hugged by green ficus hedges, we journalists and a handful of BMW reps shivered among the backless, low slung, black, wrought iron patio furniture.
“2019 was an exciting year for us,” began Andreas Lampka from MINI Market Communications. “With the new MINI Electric, the British brand once again sets a pioneering impetus for urban mobility,” he announced, uttering the electric MINI slogan.
Cold winds uncharacteristically blew off the harbor as he quickly described the battery — a model-specific lithium-ion battery that enables a range of 235 to 270 kilometers (146–168 miles). The high-voltage battery is subdivided into 12 modules which form a T-shaped unit positioned on the vehicle floor, providing a gross energy content of 32.6 kWh. The compact unit with integrated power electronics and transmission is positioned in the front section of the support frame by means of a solid tube structure. Lampas pointed to a charge simulation on the ground before him, which used a diesel-powered generator (cough, cough).
The MINI Cooper was modeled as a special version of the first-generation MINI, with John Cooper of the Cooper Car Company recognizing the potential to create a motorsports version of the same car. The recent MINIs were adjusted for hatch and hardtop and included the special edition MINI Classic Cooper and Cooper Sports cars. He then traced the 2008 model to 2017 to 2019 longevity of the brand.
Lampka turned to today’s specific focus on electrification and battery evolution.
“My favorite feature is a 2-stage recuperation configuration you engage with a toggle switch.” Lampka admitted he originally was “not the kind of guy for one-pedal feeling,” but that initial reaction dissipated when he drove the car. (Note: Substitute “regenerative braking” for “recuperation” if you wish when referring to the electric MINI’s brake energy recovery system.)
He mentioned that the electric MINI’s yellow accents weren’t mandatory. “If a customer doesn’t like that, he can opt out.” (Writer’s note: It’s always difficult to speak to the press outside one’s original language, but gender specific pronouns like “he” are really uncool in any language.)
With that, we were rerouted outside the ICA to pick up our assigned electric MINIs.
As we waited for the fleet of electric MINIs to be retrieved from a parking garage across the street, I reminisced about the street sports models I’ve been driving since I first owned cars. I started with a ’67 Camaro, yellow with black stripes and a 327. (That sure did blow oil.) Later, it was a gray Subaru WRX, and now (in addition to a Nissan LEAF) I drive a black Honda Civic Si with manual 6-speed transmission. Never a soccer mom’s SUV for me — not that there’s anything wrong with it (with a nod to Jerry Seinfeld).
As the MINIs started to be delivered to us, I understood how the Cooper brand seems to solidify the MINI’s appeal. The round headlights, flat top, square shoulders, circular dials, and joystick shifter remain as testimonials to the MINI’s illustrious past. They contrasted with the contemporary nature of the art around us, out of place with, say, the artistic sculpture of silver cars adhered vertically to the facade of the opposite building.
As our gray electric MINIs emerged and appeared before us, I asked other journalists to describe the appearance of the electric MINI.
“Cool, in the artistic sense.”
“Energetic — with signs on the wheels and electron plug-in shapes in port.”
“A little funky.”
“Same, over and over. Derivative (and I’m acknowledging the pejorative meaning of the word).”
“A little cutsie (not necessarily a bad thing).”
These comments seemed to veer toward a MINI that was endeared in the past rather than secured for future-meets-now technological innovation. Which would it be? I’d see for myself soon enough, for car #37 appeared before us. My driving companion and I received a couple of minutes of instructions and we were off.
We headed out of the ICA area of the city, immediately and constantly rerouted and redirected by our onscreen GPS.
Dear BMW: What a crazy route that was for us to drive! Throughout the 2.5 hours it took for us to go 20 miles, we had few opportunities to open it up and see what the car could do. Instead, we veered around stopped vehicles, pulled quickly left when delivery trucks blocked lanes, sped up and slowed down with constant stop lights and shifting traffic obstacles to avoid.
Our media information packet included a series of electric MINI highlights. Taking the wheel from Bal Harbour to Seawatch on the Ocean in Fort Lauderdale, I had the chance to assess different aspects of the MINI’s proclaimed performance and design.
“Pure driving fun: Electric motor with 135 kW/ 184 hp”
So true! I drove in Miami city, stop-and-go traffic, and the MINI could be counted on to burst ahead and beat that yellow-all-too-soon-to-be-red traffic light. I zipped straight, curled around, shot ahead, pulled back, and had an old-fashioned enjoyable afternoon drive, city streets not withstanding.
“Vehicle Concept: A genuine MINI to the core”
This is the same small urban vehicle you remember from your earliest days admiring autos. BMW has made a conscious decision to retain the overall retro appeal. Our press kit noted that the “dimensions, design, space and interior ambience of the new MINI Cooper SE are clearly based on the conventionally powered vehicle, the development of which already took account of the expansion of the model range to include an electrically powered version.”
“Characteristic MINI design with model-specific accentuations”
The car looks like the MINI always has — no new styling specs to change or update the style recognition. It’s intended to be “with the hallmark brand properties of the original” in the premium segment of small cars. What are called a “model-specific display and control elements” reminded me of a plane’s cockpit: lots of vertical toggle switches, round gauges, and buttons.
I’ve been interested in EVs for a couple of years now and had the opportunity to at least ride in if not test drive several different models. With the technological age that surrounds us, I can’t figure why more companies don’t try to emulate the streamlined austerity of the Tesla dash — clean lines and one touchscreen for all controls. The MINI is complicated, so, as someone borrowing rather than owning it, as well as driving in crazy traffic, I left ’em the way I found ’em. I hardly paid attention to the 5.5-inch color screen in Black Panel design behind the steering wheel. It was an interesting extra touch, but it doesn’t compete with the Tesla touchscreen.
Other digital displays in the instrument cluster provide information on the charge level of the high-voltage battery, the currently selected MINI Driving Mode, the status of the driver assistance systems and Check Control messages. In addition, details of the range available, current drive power, outside temperature, time, and mileage are displayed, along with traffic sign detection reports and high-guiding directions from the navigation system. It’s also possible to access telephone contact and audio program lists.
“Thrilling agility thanks to innovative driving dynamics system”
As the curlycue entrance onto A1A captured us in its grasp, the MINI hugged the curves, stuck to the pavement, and confidently accelerated out onto the ramp. It is definitely agile. I agreed with the advanced hype that the lower centre of gravity and electrical power made it easy to control even when cornering at high speed. This was a real plus — a throwback to its sports car origins.
“MINI driving modes with four settings”
My driving partner and I stayed in the lower of the 2 regenerative modes. That allowed an authentic one-pedal driving experience, in which lightly releasing the accelerator created feelings of real control over the vehicle in a variety of traffic conditions. It reminded me of the reason why I had always like to drive a manual transmission, as ICE downshifting had infused an additional layer of driving command. The electric MINI Driving Modes are selected by a switch located on the right-hand side of the toggle bar.
- Sport mode differs from the standard MID setting, with a more direct characteristic steering curve and a particularly spontaneous response of the drive system.
- The comfort-oriented steering characteristics of the MID setting are also active in GREEN mode, as well as in the GREEN+ mode specially configured for the new MINI Cooper SE. The drive system in these 2 latter modes is geared towards maximum efficiency.
- In GREEN+ mode, additionally selected comfort functions such as heating, air conditioning, and seat heating are limited or deactivated in order to increase the range of the vehicle.
Brake energy recovery, what I’ve known as regenerative braking, can be configured at 2 levels for a 1-pedal feeling. This is one of the features where I thought the electric MINI excelled — the regen was immediate and really responsive. Sure, it took a few minutes of driving to get accustomed to it (when I was a passenger, I thought my driving companion needed more of a feather touch to keep me from experiencing the feeling of whiplash). But, as with any new drive, after a bit I found myself hardly using the brake at all — once I eased my foot off the accelerator, the car slowed quickly.
“MINI electric provides flexibility when charging”
The electric MINI can be charged at a household socket, wall outlet, or public charging stations, with fast direct-current charging possible at up to 50 kW.
The Cooper SE is interesting because it has quite the limited range — closer to the Nissan LEAF range of 149, for example, than the 220+ Tesla Model 3 or the 259 or so Chevy Bolt — but it offers that MINI style that many fans can’t live without.
“2-Zone automatic air conditioning with heat pump technology and auxiliary heating”
We learned in our press briefing that the electric MINI has standard equipment that features LED headlamps, 2-zone automatic air conditioning, heating with heat pump technology, auxiliary heating, electric parking brake, and Connected Navigation. To be honest, I didn’t really interact with any of these features as I drove through the streets of Miami with the windows down, experiencing the city and car viscerally.
“Navigation system as standard, model-specific MINI connected services”
One aspect of the navigation system that was appealing was the ability to pre-set a series of observation points along the route.
As we pulled into the restaurant to enjoy some Florida fare (yum, Key Lime Pie), I thought to myself, The electric MINI is a spirited, sensible, reasonable, invigorating drive.
In 2002, the MINI, owned by BMW AG, made its entrance to the US auto market with the hardtop Cooper, a playful face, seating for four, and a spunky, 4-cylinder engine. In nearly a decade, more than 60% of US MINIs are the standard hardtop Cooper.
What started as a response to the fabulously popular Volkswagen Beetle from Germany is now entering a new phase: the electric MINI. And what fun it is! Described in BMW press releases as having a “go-kart feeling,” it’s so much more than a toy for adults.
Is it perfect? No. I had a really difficult time adjusting the seat so it fit me –I’m a long-legged female with short torso. Do I wish it had more range? Yes, but, then again, I’m not in its target audience, as I drive more typically in suburban environs. But have I bragged about the ride to others? You know it, to the point that friends are going to their local MINI dealer to take a test drive. They can see themselves owning and driving their first electric car — an electric MINI.
Officially known as the MINI Cooper SE, the car debuted in the Netherlands. Built in the United Kingdom and exported to the US, it is expected to be available starting in March.
All images courtesy MINI/BMW Group
Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
CleanTechnica Holiday Wish Book
Our Latest EVObsession Video
CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.