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All-Electric MINI Lineup
All-electric MINI lineup, image courtesy of BMW

Clean Transport

In A Move That’s True To The Brand’s Heritage, BMW Unveils All-Electric MINI Lineup

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I’m sure there are a few Classic MINI purists out there who don’t appreciate BMW’s recent announcement that the whole brand is going EV. But, that car has long been a pioneer of efficiency, and even pioneered a technology in the 1950s that most EVs use today. The brand also put some of the first EVs in a major Hollywood film decades ago. Let’s look at that history!

The MINI Pioneered Efficiency & Even EV History

Unless you’re familiar with the brand or looked it up, you probably don’t know that the MINI design wasn’t originally made for fun, but due to fuel shortages in the UK. In the late 1950s, the Suez Canal crisis led to rationing of fuel, which in turn led to very high demand for tiny German “Bubble Cars.” This forced British manufacturers to head back to the drawing board to make efficient cars of their own and stay in business.

The MINI’s designers didn’t want to make a Bubble Car with a British flag on it. They wanted to make a small and efficient car, but make it a “proper” car. But, to do this required some radical changes to the way cars were built.

Instead of placing the engine in a longitudinal configuration, with the rear of the motor putting power toward the back of the car, the MINI’s designers realized that they could save a lot of space by turning the long engine sideways and driving the front wheels. Other manufacturers and even some military vehicles had done this before, but not with the quality that Morris (the MINI’s original manufacturer) did. This design choice made it possible to push the wheels out to the corners of the car, too.

They also did something strange that almost nobody has done since: locate the transmission inside the bottom sump of the engine, making them both one machine that shared oil. This odd (for the time) arrangement led to a characteristic “whine” that older MINIs would make, due to the quickly-moving and large gears between the motor and the transmission. They also made the unusual decision to locate the MINI’s radiator on the side, next to the fender, making for an even more compact power plant.

The resulting short engine bay resulted in a car that was not only compact and fuel efficient, but still had reasonable room for two rows of people to sit inside! This “proper” car was able to beat the Bubble Cars from Germany, and became not only an icon of England in the 1960s, but a revered rally racing car, at least in part due to its stability.

Decades later, ownership of the MINI brand had changed hands, eventually owned by BMW. While a completely different design, the MINI Hatch, introduced in 2000, did share the same basic front-drive configuration and stance of the original.

Screenshot of an iconic moment in The Italian Job, fair use.

This design came out in time to be used in the 2003 movie The Italian Job, a remake of a classic film that had originally featured classic MINIs. A little-known fact was that the first electric MINIs most people ever saw were featured in the 2003 remake, but hidden in plain sight.

During scenes filmed underground in Los Angeles, local officials would not allow any combustion engines to run in enclosed spaces, so the film’s staff reached out to BMW to request some electric MINIs, and were told that none existed. So, they had to build some themselves to use underground.

The reason few people know that the trio of subway-riding MINIs were electric was due to special effects. To keep the film’s continuity right, ICE noises were added to the scenes filmed underground, but one clue that something was different with the MINIs remains in the final cut of the film. Let me know in the comments if you can spot it!

History’s Coming Together

Now, things the MINI pioneered are coming together.

Today, the transverse drive layout that the MINI perfected enough for common use is central to the design of most modern EVs. In fact, most EV drive units do what the original MINI did: build both motor and gearbox into the same unit, sharing lubricant and cooling. An increased need for efficiency, just as the UK experienced in the 1950s, drives the need for electric drive today, so that’s another commonality.

The big difference now is that the whole brand will now follow the example the electric MINIs first set 20 years ago, and will all be electric, but now you know that this isn’t the big departure that it seems as much as it’s a continuation of a past that MINI in part pioneered.

MINI’s New All-Electric Lineup

BMW recently announced that the new MINI Cooper and MINI Countryman are now fully electric, providing local emission-free driving. BMW says this highlights MINI’s exceptional position in its segment, combining distinctive design, advanced drivetrain technology, and an immersive digital experience.

The new MINI models feature a modern and minimalist design, focusing on the essentials just as the original did. The fifth generation of the MINI Cooper 3-door embodies the brand’s core, offering an all-electric option for urban driving enjoyment. The all-electric MINI Countryman has grown and highlights its versatility for adventures beyond the city. Departing further, the MINI Aceman, a premium electric crossover, will debut in April 2024.

“The continued high demand for our locally emission-free vehicles confirms our path to a fully electric future. It demonstrates the openness of our global MINI community to electric mobility, and I am confident that the new generation of MINI models will inspire even more people. Thanks to our electrified go-kart feeling, an immersive user experience and a responsible attitude, the new MINI family is tailor made for urban target groups all around the world,” explains Stefanie Wurst, head of the MINI brand.

While they clearly have some mechanical precedent and tradition behind the move to an all-electric brand, they were careful to keep the rest of the design true to its heritage, too. The new generation of MINI models embodies the iconic proportions – short overhangs, a short bonnet, a long wheelbase, and big wheels. Instantly recognizable with a three-part division of the vehicle body, window area, and contrasting roof. The all-electric MINI Cooper and MINI Countryman showcase exciting surfaces with integrated details. The modern impression is enhanced by flush door handles, absence of fender flares, and side scuttles. With a clearly defined shoulder area, the new MINI models exude athleticism, too.

Image provided by BMW/MINI.

The interior design of the front section pays homage to the elegantly minimalist design of the classic MINI. It features a slim and generous dashboard, along with a multifunction steering wheel that provides the hallmark MINI go-kart feeling. The central OLED display, co-developed with Samsung and known as the MINI Interaction Unit, sets a new standard with its high resolution and enhances the presence of the circular instrument, which measures 240 millimeters in diameter. I wrote more about that in this article.

But, one of the new electric minis will be departing from tradition by getting bigger. The new MINI Countryman has grown in size, with a 6-centimeter increase in height and a 13-centimeter increase in length. This expansion provides additional space and comfort compared to its predecessor. The wider wheel arches and modern design contribute to the crossover aesthetic appeal of the rugged MINI adventurer.

All in all, the brand continues on its original journey: providing efficient and fun transport in a changing world, and giving people what they need when they need it.

Featured image provided by BMW/MINI.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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