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MINI Should Offer A Manual Transmission EV

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In a recent article, I covered the ways in which BMW’s transition of the MINI brand to an all-electric fleet is true to the brand’s history. After all, MINI pioneered the modern transverse drive unit that most EVs use today (even if it was in ICE form in 1959), and MINI vehicles were among the earliest to show up on the big screen under electric power. Yes, going EV is a big departure from what the classic vehicles did for decades, but it’s closer to home than many people probably think.

But, at the same time, there is one element of modern EV construction that frustrates the owners of classic vehicles: oversimplification.

A Tesla’s interior, and to some extent its exterior design language, is one of simplicity. As Elon Musk says, “The best part is no part.” Over time, this philosophy of radical minimalism has led to Tesla’s recent Model 3 Highland refresh, where not only are automotive mainstays like the gauge cluster and function buttons almost completely gone, but there’s now not even stalks for turn signals, cruise control/Autopilot, etc. While many people who appreciate minimalism that borders on brutalism like what Tesla’s doing, it’s a move that continues to stir up controversy on social media and among automotive writers.

While MINI didn’t take things as far as Tesla did, it has definitely moved in that direction.

Image provided by BMW/MINI.

Instead of having extra gauges like old school automotive fanatics would prefer, the new MINI has reduced it all to one center display. The display is very different from what everyone else is offering (it’s a big circle, like an Android smartwatch), and there are still a few buttons left on the steering wheel and for climate control, so MINI is not completely making a Tesla clone.

One radical departure from past MINIs is the complete lack of a floor shifter. Instead of doing what Tesla did, and moving the shifter to the column and then to a touchscreen, BMW moved the MINI’s control of motor direction, parking brake, parking pawl, and regen (“B Mode”) next to the few buttons below the screen. It comes in the firm of a small but wide switch, which should be easier to move under stress than a touchscreen, so the company made a decent design choice.

But, the fans aren’t happy with this arrangement, and the biggest reason for this is that there will be no more manual transmission MINIs. While the whole brand isn’t going electric this year, there are plans to end all ICE production by 2030. So, the remaining few years of ICE MINIs are more of a transitional product than anything that aspires to have a future.

This is a bit strange, as the brand recently opened up a driving school to teach people how to properly row through the gears of a manual, but it was at least foreshadowed. The brand had a special edition of the MINI, called the MINI John Cooper Works 1 to 6 Edition, and it was limited to 999 units. So, BMW knew it was leaving the scene.

But, there’s a couple big assumptions in the EV industry that really needs to be challenged, and this is a great opportunity to do it.

EVs Can Have Transmissions (& They’re Helpful)

I know many EV fans don’t believe me, but I’ve been pointing out for years that there’s nothing about an electric motor that makes it incompatible with a transmission. For some vehicles, it’s even a good thing that can help improve both range and performance.

Before I get into this, let’s slay the monster at the gate: Tesla’s stance on this. While it’s technically true that Tesla vehicles don’t come with transmissions that switch between gear ratios (they have a single gear they stay in), the company did want to do that in the beginning. They figured out ways around the need for one when commercially available transmissions for suppliers weren’t up to the job, and after the original Roadster, they completely abandoned the idea.

But, Tesla didn’t completely abandon the idea of using multiple gear ratios to their advantage. Most dual-motor Tesla EVs come with different gear ratios in the front and rear drive units, and they’ll direct power to the one with taller gears on the highway for efficiency, and direct more power to the one with lower gearing in town. So, in a way, they very stealthily have a kind of transmission in their vehicles, even if the gears are fixed.

Another great example of multiple gear ratios is the Porsche Taycan. While people laughed at the initial EPA range the vehicle earned, they stopped laughing when they saw real-world range tests that exceeded EPA range by wide margins. While there are multiple factors that went into that happening, the biggest one is that the Taycan has a lower gear for performance and a higher gear for the highway that allows the electric motor to drink less juice at real-world cruising speeds.

It’s definitely true that EVs don’t require a transmission the way an ICE car’s engine does. Electric motors’ much wider operating ranges allow for manufacturers to skip this when they want to. But, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real benefits to offering more than one gear ratio, and that can happen with multiple drive units, a single transmission, or even with a manual.

EVs With Manuals Are Very Easy To Drive, Because Electric Motors Can’t Stall

One final reason that MINI should consider offering a manual transmission, at least on a limited basis, is how easy it is to drive an EV equipped with a manual. You see, electric motors are very happy to go right down to zero RPM, and they’ll take right off again once you hit the skinny pedal. ICE engines, on the other hand, will stall, requiring you to restart the car. So, with an ICE manual, you have to press the clutch pedal to disconnect the motor from the wheels to keep it from stalling when you roll to a complete stop. Then, when you take off again, you have to slowly let the clutch slip and then grab again to both move forward and not stall the engine out.

With an EV, you can leave the car in a single gear almost all the time (like single-speed EV drive units), and just drive it. You’d only need to shift to a lower gear for extra torque and low-speed performance, and you’d only need to switch to a taller gear for highway driving.

EV conversions have had manual transmissions for decades, and Jeep has been experimenting with manual EV Jeeps for years, making some very successful prototypes they’ve let journalists drive at Moab. So, it’s a proven concept and not some weird car nerd thing.

Not all MINI buyers would want a transmission, and would be perfectly happy to just switch it into D and go, but throwing driving enthusiasts a bone and offering a manual drive unit with 3-4 gears would help the brand keep its loyal following into the future as it becomes an all-electric brand. That alone would make it worth whatever small expense would be involved in offering a low-production model with a shifter.

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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